Banks: Closures and Shared Banking Hubs - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:07 am on 27 April 2023.

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Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative 11:07, 27 April 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government how many (1) bank branches have closed, and (2) shared banking hubs have opened, in the last 12 months; and what steps they are taking to minimise the former and speed up the latter.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare my financial services interests as set out in the register.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My Lords, the Government do not make assessments of bank branch networks or intervene in commercial decisions to close branches. Banks should follow FCA guidance, including considering alternative access where appropriate. One example of this is shared banking hubs. More than 50 hubs have been announced, with four now open, and the pace of delivery is expected to accelerate over the coming months. People can also access everyday banking via their local post office.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Conservative

My Lords, in the past 12 months, 847 bank branches have closed or are set to close. Four shared banking hubs have opened. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the Government need to act to ensure local banking provision, including deposit taking as well as withdrawals and advice? They must also act to ensure acceptance of, as well as access to, cash; otherwise, what currency is cash if there is no place to spend it? Finally, will the Government consider carefully commissioning a review into access to digital financial services to ensure that everyone can benefit from all the financial innovations in that space?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, in the Financial Services and Markets Bill, we are legislating to protect access to cash. That covers withdrawal as well as deposit services. The Government do not plan to mandate the acceptance of cash. That would be an unprecedented intervention. However, the increased access particularly to deposit services for businesses should allow those who wish to continue to accept cash to be able to do so on a more sustainable footing. My noble friend makes an interesting suggestion. The Government are working hard to ensure financial inclusion, including digital financial inclusion. I will think about his suggestion very carefully.

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy)

My Lords, getting a smart hub still requires the voluntary participation of the banks, which is part of the reason why the pace of progress has been so slow. Will the Government consider changing the rules so that any community that meets the standards to justify a smart hub, as assessed by LINK, then has an automatic right to that hub and can overcome bank resistance?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My Lords, the Government are not considering changing the framework. As I said in response to the Question, we expect the pace of delivery to pick up. Shared banking hubs are one initiative to ensure that communities can continue to access banking. I mentioned the Post Office as being another route: 99% of personal and 95% of business banking customers can carry out their everyday banking there, with more than 11,000 branches across the UK.

Photo of Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend will recollect, no doubt, an earlier Question asked by my noble friend Lord Holmes about the nature of the facilities provided by ATMs and banks, particularly for those with disabilities. Will my noble friend therefore confirm that, in the establishment of these hubs, there will be a requirement on them to be careful to provide the sorts of facilities that are suitable for people with disabilities, as the banks were starting to do?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My Lords, in taking forward this work, I am sure that that is a consideration the banks have in mind. The banking hubs came out of a pilot programme that allowed banks to test out this model to ensure that it was accessible to all their customers. Of course, they are subject to the equality duty, which also means that they need to make proper provision for those with protected characteristics.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, legal tender is legal tender. I urge my noble friend to bear in mind that the Government have the opportunity, if they wish, to mandate the use of cash—people can use it when they want. Will she also bear in mind that a lot of people now are being discouraged from writing cheques? Many people like to pay their bills with cheques. All these facilities should remain, certainly for the next two decades.

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My Lords, the Government acknowledge the important role that cash still plays in many of our lives, which is why we are taking unprecedented action on protecting access to cash. As I said, ensuring that businesses have access to deposit facilities will also promote ongoing cash acceptance by businesses.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

What about cheques?

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I do not think my children know what a cheque is, actually. The Social Market Foundation and the Treasury Select Committee in the other place have expressed some concern about the overreliance on post offices as a stopgap. Postal staff are wonderful, but they are not trained banking specialists. Does the Minister agree that we need that trusted expertise to be available on our high streets? Does she also agree that some post offices just are not suitable for many of the requirements of face-to-face banking, especially for more vulnerable customers, as they do not provide the privacy and dignity that many bank customers need?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

I agree with the noble Baroness that the Post Office can play a really important role in ensuring ongoing provision, but it should not be the only provider of services. There are other services that are more appropriately delivered in other ways, including in person, which is part of where banking hubs come in. As I have said, we hope to see the delivery of those hubs accelerated this year. It is also reassuring to hear that several banks have committed that if their branch is the last in town, it will stay open until the relevant banking hub is up and running, to ensure continuity of service.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

In my local town of Bishop Auckland, Newcastle Building Society and Darlington Building Society have moved on to the high street as banks have moved off it. Will the Minister commend building societies for their commitment to local communities and to making things accessible to them, and will she encourage further work on that?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

I absolutely commend building societies and all businesses that have a commitment to local communities and are thinking about how they can make their services as accessible as possible. There are many different routes to ensuring accessibility. We should focus on the outcome for the customer and embrace the different routes that this can be delivered by.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, the bigger the profit, the less customer service there is. This has happened over the last decade. There are still some banks pretending that they are disabled by Covid and that is why you cannot get through on the phone, and the local branch is closed so you cannot actually talk to anyone. Will the Minister ask the banks to start putting the customer first and ensure that there are facilities available, not just at the odd hub but in local communities, which, in the past, could rely on serious, person-to-person customer service?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My Lords, a process has been put in place to allow communities to make the case through LINK for where they need access to further services, and there is a commitment that if something is deemed necessary, it will be implemented. The noble Lord is right that it is essential that the interests of consumers are properly considered in all areas of financial services. There is the new consumer duty, which is due to be implemented later this year and will take forward some of his suggestions.

Photo of Lord Herbert of South Downs Lord Herbert of South Downs Conservative

My Lords, in contrast to my noble friend Lord Cormack, I do not know what a cheque is; I thought it was something one received in a restaurant in the United States. I do not carry cash and, in common with millions of people, I pay using contactless technology. Of course, some still need cash, including small businesses, but, as my noble friend says, is not the Post Office network a ready-made, available network for cash, which almost every business can use and is guaranteed in terms of proximity?

Photo of Baroness Penn Baroness Penn The Parliamentary Secretary, HM Treasury

My noble friend is right about the breadth of the Post Office network, and I have talked about the high percentages of people who can access their everyday banking services through it. It is also geographically widespread; 93% of the UK’s population live within one mile of a post office and 99.7% within three miles of their nearest post office. There are other services that people need to be able to access, which is why it is important that we encourage banks to continue to innovate so that people can access the services in the way that is most appropriate for them.