I rise to support new clause 7, which stands in my name and those of dozens of right hon. and hon. Members from all corners of this House. The amendment is simple: it proposes that the Treasury must not only make provision to guarantee a minimum level of cash access, but ensure that this access is free. Why? Because surely it cannot be right in 2022 that almost a quarter of our cash machines charge people to access their own money.
The facts are stark but simple, and may I give particular thanks and praise to Which? for such hard-hitting evidence? The UK has lost more than half of its branch network since 2015—that is 5,013 branches, at a terrifying rate of 54 every month. But money talks, and as they flee the high streets, our free cash machines disappear with them. We have lost 12,599 free-to-use ATMs in the UK since 2018, which is a decrease of nearly 24%—and it is getting worse. Replacing them are paid machines, with almost a quarter of ATMs now charging people to access their own cash. The providers really are in the money. How can that possibly be right at any time, never mind in the heart of a cost of living crisis, where the reliance on cash has soared, with the Post Office handling its highest total on record in August?
This is not just a problem for rural areas. As we have already discussed, in my constituency in south London, Mitcham has seen three bank branches flee our town centre in the last three years. When Barclays left, it swapped a busy branch for a bus that pulled up every now and then outside the empty building. But at least Barclays had the decency to show up to face the music at a public meeting, unlike Halifax, whose pledge to engage with its most vulnerable customers did not quite chime with its no-show at a packed St Mark’s church hall. Many of the attendees were from Pollards Hill, a neighbourhood cut off from the London transport network, with residents relying on the small shopping parade for everyday spends. There are two cash machines on the parade, but both charge a fee and are very profitable. That means that residents who are carefully managing a budget and taking out £10 at a time face a 20% premium just to access their own cash. How can that possibly be right or fair? When the Co-op moved into the parade last year, with the expectation of bringing a free-to-use machine with it, a ridiculous clause in its lease prevented it from opening a free ATM. If this is happening in Mitcham and Morden, it is happening in all hon. Members’ constituencies.
Success has many parents, and if this new clause is successful today, it will be in no small part thanks to the six Select Committee Chairs, seven members of the Treasury Committee and the dozens of Opposition MPs, from all parties, who have put their names to it. But I recognise the particular importance of the 21 Conservative MPs who have put their heads above the parapet to add their voice on behalf of their constituents. I thank them, because I recognise the importance of working on a cross-party basis when an issue is as uncontroversial as this. I sincerely hope they will bring their view and their colleagues to the voting Lobby later today.
I understand that the Government are considering advising free access in the policy statement, concerned that requiring free access will result in the loss of paid machines. That simply does not make sense.