Amendment 164

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 4 September 2023.

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Baroness Hayman of Ullock:

Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock

164: After Clause 202, insert the following new Clause—“High street financial services(1) The Secretary of State must engage with local authorities to devise strategies to reduce the number of high street financial services becoming vacant premises.(2) For the purposes of this section high street financial services includes but is not limited to banks, post offices and cash machines.”Member’s explanatory statementThis is aimed at protecting banks, post offices and cash machines on high streets by placing a new duty on the Secretary of State.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Welcome back, everybody, to the levelling-up Bill. I have the only amendment in this group, Amendment 164 after Clause 202, which would insert a new clause about high street financial services. It says:

The Secretary of State must engage with local authorities to devise strategies to reduce the number of high street financial services becoming vacant premises … For the purposes of this section high street financial services includes but is not limited to banks, post offices and cash machines”— although that is, of course, the most usual way of cash access to our financial services in our high streets.

We had a fairly robust discussion about this in Committee and the reason for introducing it is that I believe very strongly that we need to protect banks, post offices and cash machines on our high streets by placing a new duty on the Secretary of State. I am sure anyone who lives in any kind of rural community will have seen the number of bank branches in their local high street diminish substantially. Where I live in Cockermouth, I think we now have one bank left—and of course that is a continuing story. I looked at the figures. From 1986 to 2014, the number of bank branches on our high streets pretty much halved, which is an extraordinary number of closures. Unfortunately, that has continued and hundreds more have been closed this year. I think Barclays Bank is now predicting more closures.

We know that banks close branches to increase their profitability and to redirect investment, and we also know that it is partly in response to customers moving to online banking. The loss of branches potentially has little day-to-day impact on those who are able to move to online banking. It has more of an impact on those who need access to the physical services when they need them. We are particularly concerned about the effect of the closure of branches on people and businesses who need the physical infrastructure of a branch to visit and to make appointments to discuss financial issues.

In my community, we are particularly concerned that we have only one bank branch left in the town. We are extremely concerned about what will happen if that bank branch closes, because the impact on vulnerable people is particularly significant when the last bank branch in a local community goes. We know that an increasing number of people who live in rural areas now live at least 10 miles distant from their nearest bank branch, and this creates significant challenges for the disabled and elderly, who are less able to move to online banking. The Financial Conduct Authority has raised concerns that this could well be contributing to these groups’ financial exclusion, and it also has an impact on the 20% of small businesses with a turnover of below £2 million a year that use branches as their primary means of banking.

Bank closures also mean less access to cash. I know that when the branches have gone in our locality, the cash machines sometimes stay for a while, but after a time they also go. We have a number of events in Cumbria where cash is what people really need, and the queues for the one remaining cashpoint are enormous at those times. People might say, “Well, you can get these handheld things that you can tap your card or phone on”. That works only if you have very good internet access, which is not always the case in rural communities. I will give a personal example. My hairdresser has just given up on that method, so I am back to cash or cheques for my hairdresser. It is not unusual in certain rural areas for this to become a significant problem.

Back in May 2019, the Treasury Select Committee said that face-to-face banking

“is still a vital component of the financial services sector, and must be preserved”.

It also said:

“If the financial services market is unwilling to innovate to halt the closure of bank branches, market intervention by Government or the FCA may be necessary to force banks to provide a physical network for consumers”.

Some banks may say that they provide a mobile service and that this provides what consumers need. I have noticed that we sometimes have a mobile bank in our Sainsbury’s car park. I have to say, I have never seen anybody use it. That is, I think, because people do not know when it is coming and how long it will be there; it is also up quite a steep slope, which is not very good if you are vulnerable, elderly or disabled. So I do not think that that is the solution.

My amendment also talks about post offices. In order to increase the role of the Post Office, many banks came to agreements with the Post Office to enable consumers and businesses to use a range of branch banking services such as checking balances, paying in cheques, and withdrawing and paying in cash. Those arrangements covered 40% of business customers. In 2017, a banking agreement was agreed between the Post Office and major banks to cover the three-year period to 2019; a further agreement then came in in 2019. According to government, this extended banking services to nearly all the large banks’ personal customers and 95% of their small business clients.

The then Government said that

“the Post Office is not designed to replace the full range of services provided by traditional banks”.

Instead, the intention is

“to ensure that essential banking facilities remain freely available in as many communities as possible”.

That all sounds very good—except, of course, that we have seen a large number of post offices close. Last year, Citizens Advice analysis revealed that 206 post offices had closed in the previous two years—the equivalent of two closing every week—and closures are continuing. One in three rural post offices is now offered as a part-time outreach service, open for an average of just five and a half hours per week. That happened to a post office in one of the large villages near where I live: it maintained this service for a while but, because it was not getting the footfall since the hours were not at times when many people could go, eventually it stopped offering even that. It then moved into the village hall and people tried to do it through that route but, again, not with great success. It certainly does not replace the services of post offices and banks when they are fully functional.

To sum up, that is why my amendment is so important. People need access to cash and financial services. They often need to be able to talk face to face with somebody who understands their particular concerns; it is also important that that person is somebody whom they feel they can trust. So I do not believe that we can continue with these closures any longer. They put rural communities at a serious disadvantage and I urge the Minister to consider my amendment. I should also say that, if I do not receive sufficient reassurances from her, I will be minded to test the opinion of the House on this matter.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I support the amendment, although if it is pressed to a vote I will not be voting for it. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, will understand.

I take this opportunity to press my noble friend the Minister to clarify, when she responds, the welcome advice given by the Treasury over the summer that any customer living in a rural area should be no further than three miles from a bank branch. This begs the question: why have Barclays and, presumably, other banks, taken this opportunity to undergo another raft of rural bank closures exactly when the Government have announced that rural customers should have the right to be within three miles of a branch?

I declare an interest. The branch where I opened my first bank account is now closing. It will not affect me so much, since I can visit other, more urban branches, as long as they survive. However, it concerns me, for the reasons that the noble Baroness so eloquently set out. We are living in a time of cost of living concerns. Cash is king. One way of controlling household expenditure is by relying on cash rather than credit cards. The Government also said in the recent Treasury advice that in the event of a bank closure, rural banking hubs will be set up. I have looked into this for the closure of the branch in question, and the hub will not be like for like. There is a rural post office service in UTASS, the Upper Teesdale advisory service of which I am proud to be a patron, but it is open for fewer than six hours a week. UTASS is looking to open a bank facility for between four and six hours a week.

As the noble Baroness so eloquently set out, my point is that there will be no daily post office facility. There will now be no bank facility on the three days a week that is currently offered. The distance involved is 10 miles from the village to the market town, but 10 miles in the other direction up a dale. The distances are great. I accept that the advice given by the Treasury was that it should be within one mile in an urban area but three miles in a rural area. Rural transport is thin compared with urban transport and it will be very difficult for people. One wonders whether they will be able-bodied enough to access transport to a 10-mile radius.

The Government have identified and acted upon a problem, but my concern is that now banks are flouting the very advice that the Government have given. Will my noble friend take this opportunity to give the strongest possible message to Barclays and other banks that they must continue to provide a banking service to those who live in rural areas—not just for ordinary customers but to rural businesses? On a bank holiday weekend, their takings, over and above the usual weekends and weeks, will be considerable, and they will have to travel some distance once this closure has taken place in order to bank that money, posing a security problem as well.

With those few remarks, I look forward very much indeed to my noble friend’s response.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee), Chair, Ecclesiastical Committee (Joint Committee) 3:45, 4 September 2023

My Lords, adding to what has just been said, I have been a Barclays customer all my life, as has my family before me. The branch in Ottery St Mary, three miles from the village in which I live, closed some time ago. There is now not a single bank in Ottery St Mary. The nearest bank is in Honiton, which is seven miles away. I am told that the Barclays branch there is about to close. We will have to go to Exeter, which is a very crowded place, particularly if you drive. It has bus services, but they are not very frequent. It is 10 miles from the village where I live. Also, there were two branches of Barclays in Fleet Street, just beside the law courts. There is none today.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I strongly support this amendment. I will sound like an old fogey—so perhaps I should be sitting in the seats opposite—but I used to love going into my branch of Co-op and actually speaking to somebody, asking them questions directly. This has damaged communities, especially communities of quite vulnerable people who cannot travel very far, so the Greens will be voting for this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hoey Baroness Hoey Non-affiliated

My Lords, I also strongly support what the noble Baroness said on this. It is something that I have been very concerned about for a long time and you cannot divorce it from the way that post offices have been run down by our Government. The reality is that post offices cannot now do many of the things that they used to do. It is a drip-drip thing that is gradually making it very difficult particularly for the elderly and those who have no access to a bank account or are not near a bank.

Whatever the Government might think of GB News, I do not understand why they will not look more at its huge petition to say that we do not want to be a cashless society. This is really important. The noble Baroness is starting the fightback, which I hope the Government will listen to. I hope that she puts this to a vote, because people talk a lot about it but, when it comes to the crunch, noble Lords need to show that they mean it; otherwise, it is useless us being here.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, it is as if we were never away. I remind the House of my relevant interests as a councillor on Kirklees Council and a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, made a very strong case in support of her Amendment 164, to which I have added my name. This amendment is so important because this is, after all, a levelling-up Bill. If there is no access to financial services in the very places that are the focus of the Government’s mission statement for levelling up, we are doing them a disservice and not, in fact, helping to level up. So I hope the Minister will take heed of the noble Baroness’s arguments.

The House of Commons Library produced a very informative briefing on this very issue last year. One of its statistics was that overall use of cash payments fell from 45% of all transactions in 2015 to 17% in 2021. However, since the cost of living crisis, there has been anecdotal but substantial evidence that use of cash has increased as families find it easier to control their spending if they make cash payments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has argued on behalf of those without bank accounts; there are a large number of such people. How will they manage if they cannot access cash? Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, it is also more difficult for some older people and those with disabilities, particularly learning disabilities, to manage bank accounts, whereas they can live more independently with cash.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said, all these changes to a more cashless society depend on a good mobile signal or access to broadband. Let us remember that these are simply not available in many parts of the country. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, knows how difficult it is to access a mobile signal, let alone the internet, if you live in the Yorkshire Dales. Moving without thought to a lack of in-person banking access will seriously harm people in rural communities and those folk I mentioned.

So far, we have not thought much about local retailers in small towns and villages, which often carry out their transactions by cash. The question for those retailers, which some of them have raised with me, is where they deposit their cash if there is no bank available. If they have a substantial amount of cash, as some of them will, travelling with it and depositing it is a risk in itself.

The number of physical banks has fallen by 34% between 2012 and 2021—so says the House of Commons Library briefing. That is a substantial number. The Government anticipate that the loss of banks can, on the one hand, be resolved by people using post offices, but the number of post offices too is in sharp decline. Huddersfield is a very large town of more than 100,000 people. The post office in its centre has now moved into a branch of another shop, so it is not even a post office on its own. You have to walk through the shop to get to the post office at the back. That is hardly a presence in our towns and communities that encourages people to believe they have access to cash and banking facilities.

Finally, during the recess somebody told me about a particular banking problem they had. The bank had made an error in a transaction and wrongly attributed it as a charge on their account instead of as a payment. Resolving this problem took a couple of weeks. The person in question could access their internet account and tried resolving it that way. They failed. They tried to phone the bank: “Press 1, press 2, press 3”; “Hold on: I can’t do it”, they were told, “but ring in the morning, when somebody will know what to do”. In the morning, they were told, “Go to your local branch”, at which point the person in question said, “It closed last week. Where do you expect me to go?” In the end, they had to travel 20 miles to the nearest bank in a large city to try to see somebody to resolve the issue. It was then resolved, because you are more able to get such things sorted in person.

That will not be the only example; if I have heard of that, there will be numerous examples of that sort of situation. If that happened to an older person without access to the internet or the ability to get by public transport to a branch 10 or so miles away, they would have been at a huge disadvantage and lost that money, because there would be no way to resolve the issue. That is why banking and financial services need to have a physical presence in our communities. We do not expect every bank to have a branch everywhere, but we do expect the Government to agree to the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, to try to resolve this issue so that we can help to level up some of our communities and some of our folk. If the noble Baroness intends to move the amendment to a vote, we will certainly support it.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 4:00, 4 September 2023

My Lords, welcome back. Amendment 164 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, seeks to reduce the closure of high street financial services. The nature of banking is changing, and the long-term trend is moving towards greater use of convenient, digital and remote banking services over traditional high street branches. In 2021, 86% of UK consumers used a form of remote banking, such as an app, online or on the phone.

Banking customers can also carry out their everyday banking at more than 11,500 post offices across the United Kingdom. The Government are committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Post Office network and have provided more than £2.5 billion in funding to support the Post Office network over the past decade and are providing a further £335 million for the Post Office between 2022 and 2025. There are more than 11,500 Post Office branches in the UK—the largest retail network in the country—and, thanks to government support, the network is more resilient today than it was a decade ago. The Government protect the Post Office network by setting minimum access criteria to ensure that 99% of the UK population lives within three miles of a post office. I do not know whether this is the figure that my noble friend mentioned earlier. Businesses can withdraw and deposit cash at any of those branches of the Post Office.

The noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, brought up a real issue, I think, and that is good internet access, particularly for banking services. The Government know that, and Project Gigabit is the Government’s £5 billion programme that will ensure that the whole of the UK benefits from gigabit connectivity by providing subsidy to deliver gigabit-capable connectivity to uncommercial premises, which are typically in very rural or remote locations. We have an ambition to connect at least 85 % of UK premises by 2025 and 99% by 2030, so we are working on what is a difficult and expensive issue—we know that, but we are working on it.

The Government cannot reverse the changes in the market and customer behaviour, nor can they can determine firms’ commercial strategies in response to those changes. Decisions on opening and closing branches or cash machines are taken by each firm on a commercial basis. However, the Government believe that the impact of such closures should be mitigated so that all customers have access to appropriate banking services.

Of course it is vital that those customers who rely on physical banking services are not left behind, which is why the Financial Conduct Authority has guidance in place to ensure that customers are kept informed of closures and that alternatives are put in place, where reasonable. The FCA’s new customer duty, which came into force on 31 July this year, further strengthens protections for consumers, as it will require firms to consider and address the foreseeable harm to customers of branch closures. These issues were debated extensively during the passage of the Financial Services and Markets Bill in 2023, and through that legislation the Government have acted to protect access to cash by putting in place a framework to protect the provision of cash withdrawals and deposit facilities for the first time in UK law. This introduces new powers for the FCA to seek to ensure reasonable provision of cash-access services in the UK and, importantly in relation to personal current accounts, to free cash-access services. Following the passage of this new law, the Government published a statement setting out their policies on access to cash, which include an expectation that, in the event of a closure, if any alternative service is needed, that alternative should be put in place before the closure takes place.

Furthermore, the financial services sector has established initiatives to provide shared banking and cash services, an example being the banking hubs, which offer basic banking services and a private space where customers can see community bankers from their own bank or building society. Industry has already opened eight banking hubs and 70 more are on the way.

I have set out the comprehensive action the Government are taking to protect access to financial services in a way that recognises the changing nature of banking and respects the commercial decisions of UK businesses. This is why we believe that the right approach is being taken, and, while we agree with the noble Baroness’s intention, we cannot support this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part, particularly those who have offered their support. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering; I fully understand that she may not be able to join me in the Lobby if I call a vote. I appreciate the support offered by the Green Party through the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, as well as the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, made a really important point about the distances that have to be travelled, and the need to go to Exeter. My husband’s family are from Ottery St Mary, and I know the area well. When she said there were no banks there and she had to go to Exeter, I was quite horrified. That is an extremely potent example of the problem.

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, of course, for putting her name to the amendment and for offering her support. I have to say that I was pretty disappointed with the Minister’s response. She said that banking is changing and people are now using “convenient” digital services, but the problem is that they are not convenient for everybody. That is the point I was trying to make when I introduced my amendment.

Also, the Post Office network is not always set up in the places and communities where it is needed. We have lost too many post offices and as was mentioned, they are often now not in separate buildings on the high street but at the back of or in the main part of shops. On going to the post office, I have ended up queuing for quite some time because of other people in the shop purchasing things, so it is not necessarily convenient, particularly if you have a lot of money on you. The problem of businesses having to travel large distances with a huge amount of cash has come up. I had not mentioned that issue but of course, it is very important.

The Minister talked about connectivity, but improving connectivity in rural areas has been talked about for years. There are parts of rural areas that are very difficult to connect, and they always seem to get left behind unless the local community agrees to pay what are often very large sums of money. So again, I am not convinced that that will solve the problem. The Minister also talked about having to follow the market. I strongly believe that financial services should be driven not by the market but by the fact that they are important to all our communities, whether we are talking about personal services or business services.

The key point I would like to make concerns the banking hubs. I do not know when we are going to see them. I have never seen one and I do not know what the rollout will be, but they do not seem to be replacing what has been lost.

Having said all that, I am not satisfied by the Minister’s response so I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 180, Noes 175.

Division number 1 Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Report (5th Day) — Amendment 164

Aye: 178 Members of the House of Lords

No: 173 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Amendment 164 agreed.

Clause 79: Power in relation to the processing of planning data