Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I am glad to confirm that all the occupants of the Government Front Bench are entirely reasonable and sane. I regularly meet members of the credit union industry. The hon. Gentleman’s point brings me on to credit unions specifically.
We think that credit unions are very much worth backing. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have put a great deal of money into improving their technology. One of the challenges they have is scale: the smallness of some credit unions means that they need a communal IT platform. We have subsidised that to the tune of £38 million. I also want to highlight to the House that we have, in the past few days, launched a consultation—people may have missed it, with all the other news that has been coming out—on how the Help to Save product will work. I encourage credit unions to come forward with proposals on how they could be a part of this really important saving product.
Many Members have alluded to the important role that the post office network can play in solving this problem. As we know, this Government, like the last one, have committed to subsidising the network and making it viable. I dispute what Albert Owen said about the network having fallen from 11,900. The figure has stayed above 11,500—just over 11,600, I think—so there has been a small decline, but not the precipitous decline we saw when Labour was in government. Post offices are an important part of the solution. For example, the network’s opening hours have increased by nearly 200,000 as a result of the modernisation process.
Members have mentioned the importance of mobile phone signals, digital connectivity and our commitment on universal access. Those things are also an important part of the solution. Moreover, we currently have a record number of free-to-use ATMs in this country—about 45,000—and there is a commitment from the LINK network to continue expanding their number, particularly into harder-to-reach communities.
We have heard powerful and passionate contributions from Mr Lammy, my hon. Friend Chris Davies and the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), the last of whom talked about the affordable credit sector and the help we are giving to the mutuals sector. We have also talked about lending to small and medium-sized enterprises and the importance of the community finance network, which I know from my own constituency is very important. There are also now other platforms through which small businesses can access finance, such as peer-to-peer platforms and so on.
I do not have time to make all my points, but my door is open. We all aspire to ensure that as we go through this evolution we maintain good access to finance for everybody. Healthy competition is also important. The new starter banks—five have got a banking licence in this Parliament so far—are an important part of the solution, as too is the way firms are adapting branches to use technology to provide more services. I have run out of time—I want to hand over to the hon. Member for City of Chester to conclude—but this has been a very important and well-timed debate.