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I have taken a personal interest in the closure of banks over the years, so I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Christian Matheson and the hon. Members for Wells (James Heappey) and for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing it.
The closure of bank branches and the accessibility of banking are issues of cross-party concern, because local banks play a vital role in our communities, both in large cities and in rural areas. This is a question of access to banking and financial inclusion. Bank branch closures inevitably cut that access and cause financial exclusion. As constituency MPs, we want to know that in our local communities, individuals and businesses can access the personal finance or business banking services that they require. From today’s exceedingly interesting debate, we have discovered that people and businesses increasingly cannot access those services.
My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester explained that banking is changing—the use of apps and so on can be more convenient—but that the closures are restricting access to banking facilities for individuals and communities. He emphasised that, as the Reuters report states, these closures are hitting hard in low-income areas, and that the cutting is going too fast and too far. I agree with him, and I welcome his creative proposal for local banking hubs. He has thrown down the gauntlet for a pilot in his constituency, as have other hon. Friends; they are clearly bidding for the process. That is a creative way forward. I agree that until banks respond in some way, they should stop advertising themselves as some sort of local friend.
The hon. Member for Wells made an interesting speech. May I ask him to pass on my congratulations to the residents of Glastonbury on their creative demonstration of the black horse funeral? I thought that it was an extremely effective way of highlighting what has happened in the area, whether it affects the sale of crystals, joss sticks or anything else.
It was very helpful that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the protocols not actually working or doing what they are supposed to do. It would be interesting to look at Congress’s Community Reinvestment Act because it includes the safety net that many hon. Members have suggested as a possible future solution. He emphasised the issue for small businesses, and highlighted the work done by one of the most effective lobbying organisations in this country, the Federation of Small Businesses. I have to say that I agree with him that if there is a transfer of services to the post office, banks must surrender full functionality if post offices are to be effective. As he said, it is a case of “Either stay or go, but pass on that facility.”
Understandably, my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy is not in his place at the moment. I know that he is busy on other matters—as are many others. He highlighted the fact that even the bank he bought his first suit to get a job in has been closed. Interestingly, he emphasised the situation in his constituency, where the riots took place. I know the sterling work he has done to try to regenerate the high street and get businesses and shops back to the area—only to have some of that work undermined by the closure of the local bank. He also emphasised the issue of how footfall is calculated, which was highlighted by several hon. Members.
Chris Davies emphasised this issue with regard to rural services, and identified the fact that mobile services can prove effective as a solution in some areas. He also drew attention to what happens, as many of us have experienced, when a bank pulls out—the empty shopfronts and the degeneration of the high street overall. As he said, the post office is an alternative, but interestingly enough, the post office has also closed in his area, as it has in many others.
My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones proposed the introduction of a novel piece of legislation. I found that fascinating, and we must come back to it another time. She, too, made a bid for a community banking hub. She spoke about the role of mobile banks, but emphasised that they are effective only if they visit frequently and are open for long enough.
My hon. Friend Mr Thomas has done sterling work over the years in arguing for the development of co-operative banking and credit unions. He drew attention to the lack of affordable credit overall and to the role of the responsible finance movement, which has done excellent work. Credit unions are critical to our society now, particularly in areas that are experiencing deprivation. He also argued for co-operation, and gave the example of how back-room facilities could be co-ordinated to support the development of credit unions. He commended the 2015 Demos report—I urge hon. Members to read it—which looked at the case for a network of local independent banks across the UK, particularly in relation to their role in lending to SMEs.
Ronnie Cowan drew attention to the issue of mobile banks, but also to their drawbacks: they are not very accessible for some people, and are not the ideal solution. He emphasised the impact that the withdrawal of local bank services can have on the local economy.
In his usual eloquent way, my hon. Friend Albert Owen demonstrated the unfairness of the situation. The national banks have received significant sums of taxpayers’ money to support them, but by carrying out such closures, they are not acting responsibly.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion drew attention to what it is like to live in a rural area when a bank closes, given the impact that that can have, and to the issue of physical access. As he said, there are cashpoints, but what happens when they dry up and what impact does that have on the local economy? He also gave the example of New Quay to show how local businesses can be hampered. Like many hon. Members, he called for fair play in this matter.
George Kerevan demonstrated that, as several hon. Members have said, there is a lack of consultation when there is a closure. He emphasised the RBS case, and described the “arrogance” of the banks. I agree with that description, which many of us have experienced. It looks as though RBS is funding its £1.2 billion computer system by closing local banks. I agree that we now need to explore the idea of a universal banking obligation, so that we can address those issues. I am sure that Mr Ross McEwan has heard about the need for an urgent meeting.
My hon. Friend Chris Evans comes from the banking industry himself and knows what it is like. He emphasised a key issue that we are all experiencing now, which is just how vulnerable people are to loan sharks and doorstep lenders when a local bank closes, and the danger that poses. He quite passionately described his campaign on HSBC, the petition he launched and the bungled way in which banks handle closures, by not listening to people. He also called for the next step to be taken for credit unions. I agree with his call for Government assistance to help credit unions take that step up to become local community banks; they have great potential for that.
Gavin Newlands again described his local campaign and how it was ignored by the bank. Kirsten Oswald gave examples of the wave of closures that are taking place. As she said, the challenger banks have been identified as a solution, but are no real solution, with few results in many areas. Her example of the Airdrie Savings bank shows us how banks can be stable and provide a service over generations.
We have heard a lot today about the protocol designed to protect local banking provision. It clearly is not working effectively. Advocates from Move Your Money have urged improvements to the protocol, including forcing banks to have transparent data on branch closure locations and dates, to allow greater scrutiny of their impact. Move Your Money also wants rigorous public interest assessments before the closure of a branch, so that closure decisions are genuinely influenced by community need and likely impact, and a requirement for banks meaningfully to consult local communities in advance of closures rather than simply informing them of the decision after it has been taken. I would welcome the Minister’s views on those ideas, as I know she has taken a personal interest in the matter for some time.
What role is the Competition and Markets Authority playing in addressing the lack of competition as bank branches close? The retail banking review is meant to be addressing that issue. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that it expects
“the publication of the CMA’s final report to include specific remedies for the problems caused by bank branch closures.”
I thank all Members for their contributions. This is an urgent matter that needs addressing in many of our constituencies. I look forward to the publication of the review and hope to hear the Government commit to taking serious steps to address the decline in bank branch numbers and in access to banking overall.