Rural Bank Closures

Opposition Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 26th September 2016.

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Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 3:30 pm, 26th September 2016

Order. The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. One amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes.

Order, please. Please show courtesy to Members who wish to participate in the debate. If you wish to leave the Chamber, do so quietly and have your discussions outside.

Photo of Richie McPhillips Richie McPhillips Social Democratic and Labour Party

I beg to move

That this Assembly is extremely concerned at the number of bank branches that are being closed in rural areas; is alarmed that large rural areas are without access to a local bank branch; recognises the limitations of many of the alternatives, such as mobile and Internet banking, and the Post Office; believes that the provision of accessible banking is an integral part of social inclusion, with a particular impact on the elderly; notes the negative economic impact bank closures have on small businesses and on future investment opportunities; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to intervene meaningfully and encourage the banking sector to maintain a strong network of rural bank branches and to safeguard the existing bank branches within these communities from closure.

As a Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, I welcome the opportunity to bring today's motion to the Chamber. It concerns a huge number of people and businesses in rural areas that have been, and continue to be, impacted by decisions to close local banking facilities. Despite promises of no more bank closures in 2013, on 20 July this year, the Bank of Ireland announced that it will close eight branches in Castlereagh, Draperstown, Antrim, Belleek, Castlederg, Newtownards, Maghera and Donegall Square South in Belfast.

The decision has hit many individuals and businesses hard, especially those in rural communities.

Before discussing the overall implications of the decision, I will focus on the branch in Belleek, where the decision has been met with anger and frustration and is why 7,000 people signed a petition calling for a halt to the closure plans. Along with my SDLP councillor colleague John Coyle and Ulster Unionist MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Rosemary Barton, I witnessed that frustration at first hand when we visited the branch, its customers and local businesses to hear their concerns.

By way of background, the Bank of Ireland branch in Belleek serves some 5,000 customers and has done so successfully for decades. The branch is a lifeline for many people in the local area. It is a major part of the fabric that supports the vast majority of financial activity in the village, for businesses and individuals. Bank of Ireland's decision to close the branch has been devastating, especially for rural dwellers who have no access to other banks, because it is the last bank in the village. Those people now have to travel considerable distances to towns such as Enniskillen, Lisnaskea and Irvinestown in order to avail themselves of basic banking services. That is despite the fact that a NISRA publication found that the Belleek area is the second most deprived area for access and proximity to local services in the North of the island.

The proposed closure will also impact on cross-border trade, as a number of large businesses in the Republic have accounts in Belleek, and it is impractical for them to travel to Enniskillen or Lisnaskea. There is also the security issue, as many local businesses will have to transport vast sums of money in cash rather than deposit it locally. The closure of the bank will also have a negative impact on investment in the area. There is Belleek Pottery, and a new hotel has been proposed to open in the near future. With no local banking services, it does not bode well for the future of the area.

Last week, along with my SDLP colleagues, I met Sean Sheehan, the bank's regional director for the North, and Des Crowley, who is on the bank's board of directors. We specifically outlined our concerns, and it became clear that the decision has been made in order to increase profits rather than look out for the people of Belleek and elsewhere and the thousands of people who use the bank.

I will now turn to Bank of Ireland's reasoning for the closures. In its statement, it mentions alternative banking and how important it is to move online. When pressed on the issue, however, it became clear that the bank has made no assessment regarding access to Internet and mobile phone services. I know at first hand that there are many people in Belleek who do not have a stable Internet connection. The bank has made no assessment of what impact its decision will have on older people, who may not be tech savvy and may not be able to use computers. That simply cannot be acceptable.

The bank has also stated its intention to integrate banking services with local post offices, which are themselves facing many pressures. Gone are the days when you had a dedicated post office that was well staffed and offered an array of postal and financial services. Now it is crammed into the corner of the local shop. It therefore cannot be a realistic alternative to bank branches. the post office is simply not able to deal with the heavy footfall, while the privacy aspect of local banking that we have all become accustomed to has been removed.

Another possibility being considered by the Bank of Ireland, in the Belleek branch at least, is the linking of Belleek services with those in Ballyshannon in County Donegal. Again, however, the bank was pressed further on the issue, and it seems that the Brexit decision and future financial uncertainty means that that option is also highly unlikely.

Neither I nor my colleagues are satisfied with the proposed alternative arrangements, nor am I satisfied that a proper engagement and consultation process has been or is being completed. Staff, customers and businesses have been left completely in the dark. That is despite the fact that, last year, the banking sector came together at Westminster to agree the access to banking protocol, which sets out specific requirements for closing a bank. Those include the adequacy of alternative banking services and customer and staff engagement. None of this has taken place to date, and it is important that we in the Chamber challenge the bank on whether it is using this protocol. There are 54 staff across the North who are impacted by the decision in that they are now left in uncertain circumstances. They will either have to take redundancy or travel miles to get to and from their work, and, if you live in Belleek, that comes as a massive inconvenience.

It is against this backdrop that I find it crucial that the Chamber sends a direct message to the Bank of Ireland and to the wider banking services that we will not sit back and allow the gradual erosion of local and rural services. For far too long, rural communities have been stripped of services by banks and other institutions with little challenge and few ramifications. We talk lots about reducing corporation tax and giving our banks massive tax cuts, but what about a reduction in corporation tax and having social clauses in which there must be a commitment to rural banking services in order for banks to avail themselves of any tax break?

The Assembly needs to make a statement that rural bank closures are unacceptable, especially when it is the last bank in an area. It will be detrimental to farmers, SMEs and investment in the area. I want the Chamber to be proactive rather than reactive. In the short term, I request the Minister to engage with the Bank of Ireland to outline our concerns and that he meets Des Crowley who is on the board of directors in London. In the long term, it is my belief that the Assembly needs to make a clear statement that we will not sit back and allow the gradual erosion of services by stealth, and we must review this situation and consider whether legislation is appropriate to safeguard banking services.

I will now address the Sinn Féin amendment. It remains clear that rural broadband and mobile phone connectivity is not up to speed. That is why the SDLP brought a motion to the Chamber in June. However, Sinn Féin fails to recognise that the issue is much greater than connectivity; it is about access to banking services in rural communities. Internet and mobile banking cannot be a substitute for local face-to-face banking, and it cannot be used as an excuse to rubber-stamp the closure of these vital services. In this regard, I urge support for the motion as proposed and I cannot accept the Sinn Féin amendment.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out all after "Office" and insert ", particularly given the limitations of broadband and mobile Internet provision in rural areas; believes that the provision of accessible banking is an integral part of social inclusion, with a particular impact on the elderly; notes the negative economic impact bank closures have on small businesses and on future investment opportunities; calls on the Minister for the Economy to intervene meaningfully and encourage the banking sector to maintain a strong network of rural bank branches and to safeguard the existing bank branches within these communities from closure; and further calls on the Minister to commit to investing in identifying and addressing the problem of rural areas where no, or no worthwhile, broadband and mobile provision can be received.".

I thank the proposers of the motion for raising this important issue. We believe that our amendment adds to the spirit of the motion, which is to ensure the equivalence of service delivery for rural dwellers.

I was supportive of the motion. As a representative of a constituency with large rural areas and as a member of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, I am well aware of the many issues affecting rural constituents regarding services. As Mr McPhillips pointed out, there have been a number of bank closures across the North, the most recent in July. As he said, this represents a loss of local jobs as well as the service.

A few weeks ago, the Federation of Small Businesses presented to the Economy Committee, and I asked whether there were specific issues for rural small businesses. The two points raised were the importance of rural banks and rural crime. It was pointed out that small businesses need to be able to deposit cash and that it is a security risk for them to travel or keep money in a safe. It was also highlighted that there is footfall associated with local bank branches for cafes, shops etc in a small town or village that can be lost when a branch closes. For personal banking, there are of course those who prefer or need to avail themselves of in-branch services for particular transactions.

On our amendment, it cannot be ignored how banking has changed in the past decade. Online banking is now used by around 60% of our population for a range of transactions. For example, 33% of Barclays personal loan applications are done online. Mobile apps are increasingly the method of choice for many banking transactions. For example, Halifax states that 65% of its online banking is done via mobile app. For many rural dwellers who do not have access to transport, it is imperative to have access to online or mobile banking. This could be households with a single earner and one car where a parent is at home with kids or rural dwellers who are unemployed, are long-term sick or have a disability. In this instance, people may be unable to travel to the nearest branch. It is therefore necessary to have adequate broadband or mobile phone coverage. Many of our most isolated areas suffer from a lack of services in general, including public transport, so the loss of a local bank branch exacerbates an inequality in service that is already there.

It cannot be ignored that there has been a reduction in the number of in-branch transactions and that fewer people may be using branches, but banks should be encouraged to look at more innovative or imaginative solutions than simply closing branches. Reduced hours is one option, or, if reducing overheads is an issue, sharing premises with shops, other banks in the town or post offices or delivering a full range of services through a post office branch are other options. I acknowledge what Mr McPhillips said about privacy, and that is something that needs to be addressed. This would ensure that the full spectrum of service remains within the locality. While acknowledging that the Minister has limited say in the business decisions of individual banks, all possible influence should be exerted to encourage those types of initiatives.

There have been many debates and discussions about the need for better broadband provision and mobile coverage in rural areas, and a great deal of investment has been put into mobile and broadband infrastructure. I acknowledge what the Minister previously said about not wanting to allow a situation to develop where there is one level of service for urban areas and another for rural areas, and I welcome that. Unfortunately, however, that may already be the case in some areas. It is very frustrating for individuals, whether they are seeking home or business broadband, to be told they are just outside the scope of decent delivery, and it is equally frustrating as a rep to be told the same and not be able to offer a solution to those individuals.

I could stand here and list areas with no coverage or very poor coverage, but so could many other Members, and I am sure that the providers are aware of where they are. That information needs to be collated and the issue tackled. That is why we are calling for the Minister to commit to a programme to identify the pockets of areas with poor broadband or mobile coverage and hold the providers to account to ensure they target those areas in a systematic way.

There is also a role for local councils in that, and some have plans already in that regard. A targeted action plan should be developed to deliver at least basic broadband over a set period of time to all areas. This is a piece of work that will become necessary with the universal service obligation. It is expected that there may be some clawback of investment to BT, which could be redirected towards a project like that.

Broadband and mobile coverage are no longer luxury commodities; they are necessary utilities like water and electricity. They are a requirement for SMEs to do business and are expected in households for educational and entertainment purposes alike. It is no use telling people who live in those areas affected that 48,000 premises have been connected via the broadband improvement scheme; they only want to know when they too might be connected.

I support the motion and commend the amendment to address the disparity in service provision to rural dwellers.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP 4:00 pm, 26th September 2016

The closure of a bank in a rural area is a very emotive issue for any community. It instils a fear in the heart of that community because it is another loss in a rural area. Far too often within rural areas we are seeing the losses of businesses, banks, post offices and other facilities, which we must stand firmly against. A bank closure means the loss of a facility that has been in situ for many years and forms part of the very fabric of that society. It is fair to say that in many areas the bank is utilised from the cradle to the grave. Family members — fathers, grandfathers and siblings — will have used it. When a child is born, an account is opened for them, and it used throughout their lifetime. The closure of that bank creates a huge gap in that area and a huge concern for the people in that community.

The removal of the facility and that face-to-face encounter with a member of staff creates a huge gap for all those who prefer this method of banking. It has a huge knock-on effect on the footfall in a town or village and a negative impact on many of the local businesses in the area. A local branch manager understands the difficulties and challenges facing many businesses, from small to medium-sized enterprises right through to the agriculture industry, which depend so much on that knowledge and flexibility to allow growth. Unfortunately, that relationship with the managers is being lost, placing huge pressure on some of the businesses. I have been working with businesses that have found that, with their local branch gone, they have extreme difficulty in even securing a meeting with a senior member of the bank to sort out very simple financial pressures. That is a direct result of the loss of the branch in their local area.

As I look across my constituency of West Tyrone, which is a large rural constituency, the number of banks that have already closed and have been proposed for closure is alarming. In the past few years, the number of banks in Castlederg has been reduced from three to one. Our rural villages are losing not only their banks but, in some cases, their post offices as well. This is stripping rural areas of a facility that is so essential to them.

While we understand that, right across Northern Ireland, there is a focus on changing how banking should be done in the future — for example, Internet banking and other methods — that simply does not work in rural areas such as our small towns and villages. The lack of broadband availability puts paid to that. Many rural dwellers and small businesses do not have adequate access to broadband services and are, therefore, at a loss to even contemplate doing Internet banking.

Regardless of how advanced online banking may become, the people making the decisions must take into consideration the infrastructure difficulties that exist and the extreme pressures that branch closures are placing on rural communities. Many individuals and small businesses are being forced to travel round trips of anything up to 50 miles to access their banking facilities, which also creates a security issue for the small business sector. Consultation between customers, the community, elected representatives and the banks prior to any closure is practically non-existent, with many customers and members of the community not being made aware of proposed closures until they read it in the local press.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for giving way. Will he agree with me when it comes to these closures? We are now seeing a further eight Bank of Ireland branches close, on top of the original 19. The chief executive told us last week that the bank in Castlederg in our constituency was in profit, as was the one in Belleek. Does the Member agree with me that this is about profit and not people?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

That appears to be the issue. It does not seem to be people-focused any longer. Prior to the axe falling on any branch, the banks must conduct a much more rigorous impact assessment and consultation exercise with the customers and communities who are likely to be affected by any closure. For the benefit of rural areas and the small business sector in particular, most of which we find in rural areas, it is essential that the Minister, who we are glad is with us for the debate, in the limited role that he has in this matter, intervenes in some meaningful way to seek to safeguard the existing branches in our rural areas, to protect the rural areas from any further closures. Every branch closure in a rural community has a hugely detrimental impact on that area and is a huge loss. I ask the Minister to intervene and do what he possibly can to seek to stop and prohibit the closure of these branches.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, thank you for the opportunity to participate in this bank closure debate. I, too, support my constituents in their efforts to halt the closure of the last remaining bank in the town of Belleek. From 2010 to 2014, 77 branches in the overall banking network in Northern Ireland closed; that is one third of all branches. Since 2014, this closure programme has been accelerated, leaving many towns and villages without any form of banking. This is particularly prevalent in my own constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

A number of Members have outlined the socio-economic reasons why banks must remain open. We all realise that banking is changing, but at least one bank needs to be operational in the larger villages, given the land mass of the county of Fermanagh. How many people in the Chamber would endure a round trip of 50 or 60 miles several times a week to use a bank to do business, together with the risks of transporting cash? Very few, I assume.

We are told the bank is closing because of the reduced footfall due to declining business. In the past two years, two other banks in Belleek have closed. What has the Bank of Ireland done to encourage new business? What incentives did it offer those customers from the other banks to change their account and make the Bank of Ireland in Belleek more viable? The banks have to change their single-minded approach of using a decreasing footfall as an excuse to close a bank. They must make a greater effort to entice more clients with larger incentives.

Presently, it looks as though the banks do not want the bother of providing a service to rural customers. I understand that, due to accounting procedures, the more lucrative income from business and mortgages is not now counted in the bank income measurement, thus accelerating the rate of closures in rural areas such as Belleek. Since 2013, the Bank of Ireland has closed 17 branches in Northern Ireland, leaving only 28 operational. I hope this is not the thin end of the wedge of the Bank of Ireland closing all its branches.

Again, the excuse that customers are doing their banking by Internet is not acceptable. Of those who have access to the Internet, only 51% use it for online banking, compared with the average figure in the UK of 60%. This access to the Internet and poor mobile infrastructure certainly is a huge disadvantage economically for the Belleek area and is a gigantic issue that the Executive still have to address successfully. The Bank of Ireland speaks of 365 online, which it says offers the convenience and flexibility to do day-to-day banking at any time. Has the Bank of Ireland in Belleek considered working with the community and the Executive to jointly finance a state-of-the-art mobile and online infrastructure to ensure the success of its 365 online service in Belleek so that digital banking will be accessible for the people of the area?

Time and time again, one is told by the bank about its good customer service. The threat of closure certainly does not indicate that, nor does the manner in which the bank's customers learned of the proposed closure. There is also no evidence that the Bank of Ireland assessed the impact on the local community of this closure. My constituents in Fermanagh and South Tyrone deserve better than bank after bank being under threat of closure or being closed. While Belleek town is relatively small, it is a vibrant community with a world-famous pottery and a thriving tourism industry.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

I therefore urge the Executive to intervene, meet the Bank of Ireland chief executive and do everything to prevent the proposed closure. I support the motion.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the motion and the amendment. As a rural dweller and a representative of the largely rural constituency of Strangford, I have seen at first-hand how the closure of local bank branches has had a negative impact, particularly on older citizens and small rural businesses.

Wilfred Mitchell, policy chair of the FSB, noted the unwelcome rural focus of bank closures across Northern Ireland over recent years. I have heard from constituents about how they do not want to discuss personal banking requirements over the post office counter, especially when that counter is in the garage forecourt where their neighbours are next in the queue waiting to buy their milk. I have heard from constituents about how the post office alternative is no longer available because even the post office in that village has closed. Indeed, I have heard about situations where the local post office is based in a village that you cannot travel to using public transport because the rural village-to-village route has been removed and the only local taxi does school runs during the week and pub runs at the weekend.

While 60% of people may use online banking, I have heard from constituents who are frustrated that online banking is often the only alternative offered and from elderly citizens who never use a smartphone. There may be limited broadband in their areas, but they do not have or want to have an expensive computer, tablet or smartphone or they cannot afford to have broadband in their homes. The opinions of rural dwellers and businesses are not being considered enough.

In a press release following the announcement of the closure of a number of Bank of Ireland branches, the bank stated that the decision was not taken lightly and noted that customers would be disappointed. Customers were and remain more than disappointed. They feel abandoned and disillusioned by high-street banks that have given little or no consideration to the impact that the closure of local branches has on communities and small businesses. During the financial crisis, customers stayed loyal to local branches and banks, and those same customers are now being abandoned. Indeed, Larry Broderick of the Financial Services Union stated that branch closures were "irresponsible", given the announcement of "significant profits". Therefore, it is appropriate that the Minister engage with banks to encourage the sector to maintain a network of rural branches.

The pace of bank closures has accelerated rapidly over recent years. The British Bankers' Association (BBA) investigated lending data and found that bank closures dampen SME lending growth by 63%. That figure rose to 104% in areas that have lost their last bank. That is a significant and damaging drop in funding for areas that are already under commercial and economic pressure.

I fully appreciate that banking is a reserved matter and that the Department has no statutory oversight of the banking sector. However, where there is market failure, there needs to be intervention by Government to address issues that are having such a negative impact on the public and, at the same time, hindering small businesses. Does the Minister accept that this is market failure? If he does, does he acknowledge the need for Government to intervene as is suggested by the motion and the amendment? One way that the Minister could help is by encouraging banks to look again at their balance between profit and social responsibility, and to encourage them to treat rural customers fairly by replicating the protocol on bank closures as agreed by the British Bankers' Association. In that protocol, high-street banks, consumer groups and Government signed up to an industry-wide agreement to minimise the impact of bank closures on local communities.

It is not appropriate for banks simply to state that online banking or the Post Office are appropriate alternatives to local branches. If appropriate consultation with the community were completed, the bank would have had to address whether broadband access was available, enabling online banking to be a reasonable alternative. It would also have to consider those customers who do not use online banking.

In my constituency, broadband and mobile phone signals may be available, but their speed and strength is so limited that it makes it difficult — in some areas, impossible — to use a smartphone or computer to bank. There are, of course, a generation of bank customers who are used to speaking to a local bank manager. Those people will never use online banking, no matter how good the broadband capacity. In my family, my father and my mother-in-law do not use online banking. They do not trust it or want to use it and would not do so. That generation needs to be able to speak to a human being in person. The fear of computer glitches — let us face it: many banking customers in Northern Ireland have faced significant difficulty thanks to computer glitches over recent years — cybercrime and computer hackers means that they have little trust in online banking. What alternative is available for them?

Banks have said that the Post Office provides local banking. In my constituency, the Post Office is having its own problems delivering local rural services. A number of local Post Office providers have pulled out, including those in Kircubbin, Carrowdore, Portavogie and many other small villages. While the Post Office tries to find another shop or garage to take on the services, many villages are being left —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 4:15 pm, 26th September 2016

I ask the Member to conclude her remarks.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Thank you. Many places are left without an alternative.

I ask the Minister to take forward a protocol on banking closures like the one agreed by the BBA in 2015 —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

— and considers the Move Your Money report.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

This is a matter of particular relevance in my constituency of Newry and Armagh, where, in a matter of a few months, a number of rural banking branches were withdrawn from towns in the constituency. Tandragee lost the Danske Bank branch, and many customers who were less mobile and, indeed, businesses in the town that enjoyed that accessibility to a banking branch switched to the remaining bank in town, an Ulster Bank, only for it to close a few months later. That had a negative impact on Tandragee, with a noted decrease in the number of people stopping there. It has also had a negative knock-on effect on businesses.

Newtownhamilton lost its only banking branch, as did Markethill, which, in reality, means that, over a very large area, the only physical branch-based banking services are in Newry city and Armagh city. That continues to be a significant issue for businesses and, of course, the general public, who now have to travel much greater distances to do their banking.

I have liaised with various banks and was successful in encouraging Ulster Bank to operate a mobile bank in Tandragee one day a week, which has been of some assistance to local people. However, it has limited services on board; it is no substitute for a permanent branch in the town. I recall, in the weeks leading up to the closure, holding various meetings with the banking institutions, at which I put forward strong arguments for the retention of services in each of the respective areas. However, the banks' defence of closure was consistently based on the rise of Internet banking and the cost of operating a branch versus the financial benefit to the bank.

It is, in my view, unacceptable that banks feel that they can withdraw a vital service from a town, especially when the general public and businesses have given a bank loyal custom over many years; in many cases, for decades. The public and local businesses that I spoke to remain very dissatisfied by the decision of banks in my constituency to withdraw their branch services. Indeed, some of those banks in recent times have made record profits in Northern Ireland.

That Internet banking is rising in popularity is no surprise, and, in many respects, it represents a convenient opportunity to check your accounts at any time, day or night, and in any place. However, not everyone is comfortable with this form of technology, and not everyone has access either to 4G mobile, a phone data signal or suitable broadband speed to permit the use of online banking by computer. That is an issue for those either without the technology or for those uncomfortable using it. For those in that position in my constituency, it means a significant journey to access branch services elsewhere, and, of course, it poses a real problem for the elderly and those without suitable transport.

I encourage our Finance Minister to continue to liaise with our banking institutions and impress on them the requirement to maintain branch networks, particularly in rural areas, where towns have been negatively impacted by branch closures.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I commend the proposer of the motion. Banking and access to financial services are vital for local people. That is especially true in areas where there are already very few basic services. Take Owenkillew, which I represent. It is the number-one deprived area in the North of Ireland as measured by access to basic services. It is very important that we look at banking and financial services in the context of wider services to meet the needs of people in the area. Recently, we marked the successful conclusion of the rural development programme, which created over 1,000 jobs, lasted five years and invested £100 million. We are now looking forward to the new one. The stripping back of important financial services makes for a disappointing contrast with that good news story of investment and development in our rural areas.

My party raised the issue of broadband in the amendment. Throughout the North of Ireland there are many not-spots, particularly in rural areas. Part of the area that I represent, along with others in the Chamber, is the Sperrins, and it has many not-spots or areas where broadband is not available. That was a subject of debate in the Chamber in June, just after the election. Indeed, last week, Barry McElduff MLA, Pat Doherty MP and I followed up that debate by meeting Ofcom to discuss access to broadband for people in the area. It is a massive issue, and I am glad that it has been included in the amendment.

Bank closures are a big issue in West Tyrone, as in many other areas. Indeed, I was personally involved in the campaign to save the Ulster Bank in Gortin and engaged with businesses, the GAA club and the local community. The sense that I got through dealing with people was that they felt let down after giving decades of valuable custom to their local branch.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. You talked about people feeling let down. Does the Member agree with me that if, as the Swiss bank UBS predicts, another 50% of banks in the UK close in the next 10 years, the problem will only be exacerbated?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an additional minute.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Yes. That was a very timely intervention, Kellie. Certainly with the Bank of Ireland, we are looking at another swathe of closures. There are in the region of eight bank branches in the pipeline for closure across the North, one of which is in Castlederg in the West Tyrone constituency. My colleague Pat Doherty, the MP for the area, met Des Crowley in Westminster to discuss that. The sense that he got was the same sense that we got when we met bank chiefs before, which is that these are business and economic decisions. You get the sense that these things are foregone conclusions. The message that comes out of that is that these are people, customers and communities who have been loyal for decades, yet they do not feel as though their loyalty is being reciprocated by the banks. Banks need to look at their social responsibility as well as just the economic case for whether a branch stays open.

Just a few months ago, we marked the conclusion of the Rural Needs Bill. This is the first region in Europe to have rural needs and rural proofing enshrined in legislation. Hopefully, the South of Ireland will come into line within the next year as well. The now Rural Needs Act 2016 puts a statutory duty on public authorities to pay due regard to the needs of rural dwellers and to consider the impact of the decisions that they make. It is beyond the legislative competence of such an Act to include banks, but that is the challenge for our banks. They need to rural-proof their decisions, look at the impact that they have in local areas and reciprocate the loyalty that they have been getting for decades from people here.

In conclusion, as I said at the outset, banking and access to financial services cannot be seen in isolation from other services and areas such as access to GPs, transport, youth services and caring services. It is our responsibility as a legislative Assembly to give a voice to the people who feel let down and cut off; to cash businesses in rural areas that now feel vulnerable having to go some distance to a bank in the nearest town to deposit cash; to sporting clubs, GAA clubs and others that need to deposit cash at their local bank; and, of course, to older and vulnerable people who maybe cannot get to town or who are in a broadband not-spot, of which there are many throughout the North. It is our duty to speak up to prevent the closure of these banks, to make banks see that they have a social responsibility and to do whatever we can to prevent the overall decline and decimation of services in rural areas.

Photo of Gordon Dunne Gordon Dunne DUP

As a member of the Committee for the Economy, I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. It is an important issue that affects so many people across Northern Ireland. The reality is that it is not a problem that is exclusive to Northern Ireland. Since 2010, it is reckoned that over 30% of bank branches — some 77 — have closed right across the Province. It is also estimated that some 1,700 bank branches have closed their doors across the UK in the past five years. Any closure can have a real and severe impact on many in society, including our older population, those who are less mobile, those who have disabilities, those with lower incomes and those who may not have the resources or the skills required to manage their own bank account online.

(Madam Principal Deputy Speaker [Ms Ruane] in the Chair)

There is no doubt that bank closures have a real effect on so many. They have a negative impact on small businesses in our towns, which rely on banks daily for lodgements and getting access to money. Any closure also leaves a vacant hole in our town centres, and that can often be very difficult to fill, with reduced footfall and the effects of that. People in Northern Ireland still like face-to-face service, which they get in a bank. It gives them confidence and convenience and meets their banking requirements. They build up relationships and trust with staff over many years. There is also the security element. With no bank facility, householders and businesses may end up having to store large amounts of money within their own four walls, which presents a personal risk.

In my constituency of North Down, Holywood has been left with one bank. We originally had three. The First Trust Bank branch closed in 2013 and the Danske Bank branch in 2014. Donaghadee has lost its bank. It has no bank. There is no bank in Donaghadee. The village of Millisle nearby has no bank either.

I understand that there are a further nine Ulster Bank branches under threat. Local people really feel the impact of these closures, and there is no doubt about the reduction of service when the banks close.

Closures are often carried out with no consultation with the local community, and they leave many customers feeling let down, frustrated and concerned. In the case of the Holywood Danske Bank closure, I got a phone call to my office saying the branch would close within three months. It was totally out of the blue; it was a shock to everyone, especially to the local community. There was no consultation. Certainly, we had meetings with senior bank officials, but no one listened, and the decision was made.

Certainly, online banking has transformed the way that many people bank. The digital age of mobile banking, with online transfers and credit cards, has radically changed the whole sector. However, banks must do more to protect our most vulnerable and ensure that they are looked after and to respect their customers' needs and requirements.

Another real frustration is the lunchtime closing of banks, where customers are standing outside the door trying to get in. Banks talk about customer focus and putting people first: it seems to be all about putting profits first.

Whilst alternative facilities in post offices go some way to soften the blow following a bank closure, they can often be busy places and, understandably, are not able to carry out the full range of services that a traditional bank branch can offer over a counter with dedicated financial staff. The last Enterprise Committee regularly met those from the banking sector and other agencies, such as the Consumer Council, on these issues, and we always raised the need for a strong branch network to be sustained across Northern Ireland.

I know that the Minister, Simon Hamilton, has a long interest in the issue, and I know that he will continue to fight the case for local communities.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 4:30 pm, 26th September 2016

I commend the SDLP for tabling this important and wide-ranging motion, which we will, of course, support.

Rural bank closures affect all our constituencies, urban and rural. Most acutely, however, in rural constituencies like South Antrim and our adjoining constituencies of East Antrim and North Antrim, bank closures have had a considerable effect. I quote Rachael Cray, head of money affairs at the Consumer Council of Northern Ireland:

"by next February, Northern Ireland's big four banks will have closed 77 branches in the last four years (31 per cent of the bank branch network) ... Despite an increase in online banking, our research shows that bank customers still want access to local services" — for the reasons we have already heard —

"with 68 per cent of consumers surveyed saying they had visited a bank branch at least once in the last month."

This is not an issue for just County Antrim or even Northern Ireland; it is a much wider issue that goes across all these islands. However, we in Northern Ireland are particularly hard hit because of the dispersed and rural nature of our towns and villages and the generally poor nature of our rural broadband Internet coverage and 4G mobile coverage.

It has been said that technology changes and it is a sign of progress that bank branches have been thinned out and closed. It has been said that, in the age of superfast broadband, the Internet and smartphones, the need for local bank branches has diminished to a point where they are virtually extinct. However, we should have a word of caution for those who say that Internet banking is wholly the method of the future and face-to-face banking in a physical building, interacting with trained clerical staff, a thing of the past.

The recent report from the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland highlights the problems for small businesses. There is the time spent physically to travel 50 miles or 60 miles on a round trip and the time that that takes out of the business. There are the security aspects of transporting large volumes of cash and cheques, and the impact on rural communities, villages and towns of the lack of footfall when a bank branch closes.

On the issue of online accounts, the question many people will ask is about security: "How secure is my account?". Over 16 years ago, the British Bankers' Association published an academic report entitled, 'Banking without Branches: a study of how people conduct their banking business without a local branch', which stated:

"Remote banking, technical solutions and even unattended deposit facilities appear not to command widespread trust amongst isolated bank users, so banks will need to work hard if they wish to market these as alternatives to branches for some types of customer."

We recognise that some banks, in particular the likes of Ulster Bank, have introduced mobile banking, but that is not enough. It is no substitute for proper banking facilities and where they are located. Bank closures in small towns and villages have hit our communities hard in recent years; it is an island-wide phenomenon. We all understand that individual banks will make their decisions on bank closures for their own commercial reasons, but for some of us it smacks of issues around profit. This debate will have been worthwhile if it raises understanding of the issue. It would be helpful if the Minister, in summing up, could clarify what role the regional Government can and will play in mitigating the effects of bank closures, particularly in rural areas.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker

A lot of reference has been made to the Bank of Ireland and how it has impacted; indeed, it has beaten a retreat from two branches in my constituency, in Draperstown and Maghera. Recently, in Maghera, we have had Danske and Bank of Ireland announcing closures; indeed the Danske is long vacated. Both were in the town centre, virtually facing each other, so we have a void there. People might say, "OK, it is just a building", but it was about the service that was provided to those communities. I speak today about my constituency and Portglenone, which is on the periphery of it. Danske closed there too, and a lot of people from the lower end of south Derry did their business in the Portglenone branch.

There appears to be a gradual retreat by banks from, particularly, the rural communities that they serve. We hear time and time again that you can do banking online and that there are issues of footfall and increased numbers of people doing online banking. That is true and may well be the case, but many people do not have access to the Internet, as amply outlined earlier, or do not have it on their smartphones. There are people, mainly older people, who do not do the online stuff, do not get the online stuff and will not ever be able to do it. There are also others who have learning disabilities that prevent them from doing it. The support of the one-to-one interface and exchange is crucial. As I see it, the banks are beating a retreat from our rural areas, and these are not non-productive rural areas. I can cite Draperstown and Maghera, and we can look at the number of self-starters, self-employed people and very productive businesses in that area, many of which are into manufacturing and exporting. I am sure the Minister can verify that from stats from his Department. The banks actually get this and say, "Yes, we know", but what are they doing about it? They are withdrawing their services from those areas.

I have dealt with the individual and community perspectives. Nobody could have put it better from the business perspective than the Federation of Small Businesses. It referred to footfall. When a bank branch closes, particularly in a rural area, there is a knock-on effect in reduced footfall in that town or village that impacts negatively on other local business. Of course, it does. If you are not bringing people into town or you have not got the footfall in the streets, business is not going to happen. Other businesses will be affected, be they in the retail or service sectors. Some people are being forced to travel up to 50 miles on a round trip, which is time away from their home, their business and other duties that some simply cannot afford. The in-branch relationship managers did not just provide advice, they understood the locality, the area and the needs of the actual customers. They are not going to be there. We cannot expect Post Office staff to advise on banking facilities such as overdrafts and other necessities that are required from a bank. Security has already been referred to, and many of us know businesses that have had their homes ransacked by criminals looking for money. Direct access for those businesses to overnight facilities, night safes or whatever it might be with banks is crucial, particularly where there is a rapid cash flow in those businesses. I have already mentioned access to broadband and, again, customers' needs. This is very important: the Federation of Small Businesses has done its work. It took a focus group, and members told it that the proportion of cash or cheque transactions in their businesses ranged from 50% to 95%. Therefore, the closure of nearby branches will have a significant impact on them.

Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil mo chuid ama ag teacht chun deiridh. I support the motion. Go raibh maith agat as ucht seans a labhairt.

Photo of Caitriona Ruane Caitriona Ruane Deputy Speaker

I call the Minister for the Economy, Simon Hamilton, who will have 15 minutes to respond to the debate.

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I have listened with interest to the debate today and welcome the opportunity to respond to the motion, even though, as several Members have pointed out, my Department or, indeed, any Department in the Executive does not have direct responsibility for banks in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it is an important issue that is rightly raised on the Floor.

The number of bank closures, particularly in rural areas, is a real concern for the many customers — both local businesses and the wider community — who rely on the services of their local bank. We must, of course, acknowledge that there has been a major shift in how we engage and interact with our high street banks. The services of the high street banks in Northern Ireland have traditionally been delivered through an extensive network of branches; however, it is indisputable that branch usage is not as high as it once was. As financial innovation has increased, trends in society have seen falls in the demand for traditional banking methods and a significant rise in the use of online banking and electronic payment methods. Recent data from the British Bankers' Association (BBA) shows that the number of bank branch transactions across the United Kingdom has fallen to an average of four per customer per year. The BBA calculates that the average branch in the UK receives 71 visits per day: that is a 32% fall since 2011.

I raise those issues not with the intention of sounding like a spokesperson for the banks — I have a tough enough job without taking that one on — but because, as many Members have acknowledged, we are changing our behaviour in how we interact not just with banks but with a range of services, such as retail and government services. The BBA also showed that there had been a 50% rise in banking app logins, to 11 million per day in 2015. The Bank of Ireland, which is understandably in the eye of the storm in today's debate because of its recent announcements, suggests that as few as 2% of customer transactions are now done in-branch, that there has been a 20% increase in online customers in the past two years and that, two years ago, 70% of mortgages were sold directly via branches or on the phone. That has now flipped the other way, and now 70% are sold via mortgage intermediaries, without interaction in branches at all. It is that changing behaviour, driven largely by technological change, combined with the impact of the financial crisis and new regulatory costs that has made banks across the UK, Ireland and the world look at the viability of their branch networks. Unfortunately, in the last few months, we have seen, as mentioned, an announcement from the Bank of Ireland that it proposes to close eight branches across Northern Ireland. Since 2010, 104 bank branches have closed here, leaving us with 252 branches across Northern Ireland.

The role of high street banks in our society is still essential. They play a valuable role in our communities. Many people believe that the Northern Ireland high street banks could have done more for their customers, especially those in rural areas, as they have tried to concentrate their branches in major centres of population or close their branches in favour of online banking. With each closure, the impacts on domestic and business customers can be considerable. Businesses suffer reduced footfall, cash flow shortages and concerns around the security of cash lodgements, whereas domestic customers can feel more isolated and excluded from society. The impact of the closures has been felt in rural areas and places where no suitable alternatives to bank branches exist. Northern Ireland already has a high number of unbanked consumers — around 10% — compared with the rest of the UK, which is at 4%.

It is important, therefore, that we do not unnecessarily increase the sense of exclusion; rather, we must look to increase the confidence and capability of consumers. However, I recognise that banks are private concerns. As I said, the nature of their business is changing. I want to develop good, open and transparent relationships with the banks so that we fully understand each other.

It is important to note that, as I mentioned before, the regulation of financial services is a reserved matter. However, in recent weeks, some Members called on me to meet various banks, but I have, at my instigation, met Danske Bank, Ulster Bank and the Bank of Ireland, and I have plans to meet others in the coming weeks. If we can work together, I think our banks can provide great and early insight into our economy and how it is performing in varying sectors.

We have to appreciate that, as the majority of customers change the way they interact with banks, the nature of banking in Northern Ireland will also change. We need to develop progressive relationships with our high street banks so that they remain mindful of the needs of rural communities and those more vulnerable in our society who face the possibility of being left behind and, ultimately, financially excluded.

Many will ask what our consumers really think. We hear from our banks that their customers and the data suggest that consumers are behaving very differently. A survey, though, by the Competition and Markets Authority in April last year showed that 63% of consumers found that having a local convenient branch was very important. There is still a fundamental role for branches in retail banking in Northern Ireland. Consumer Council research from Move Your Money shows that there are some fundamental moments in your financial life when you want to speak to someone face to face, such as, obviously, when taking out a mortgage.

As we know, human contact engenders trust and confidence, and in a rural area that has an even greater value. A sense of community often depends on a busy, thriving high street, and rural banks are a key element of that. Perhaps one of the most telling results from research carried out by the Consumer Council shows that it is predominantly the more vulnerable in our society — that is, the elderly, disabled and those on low incomes — who are most adversely affected by bank closures. Whilst, unfortunately, some branches in Northern Ireland have closed, many others have been refurbished and upgraded, offering more space and meeting rooms so that customers can meet staff. So I think it is important to acknowledge that banks recognise the need for investment also.

Many have asked what we can do to mitigate the impacts of the closures. In Great Britain, as part of the British Banking Association's (BBA) bank protocol, banks must investigate alternative arrangements for customers before closing the last bank in town. Those can include free-to-use cash machines, mobile banking solutions and the use of local post office branches. Unfortunately, to date, the protocol has not been adopted in Northern Ireland. I think there are some weaknesses with the protocol as it currently exists; some Members focused on it. It is a protocol that comes into place, I understand, only when the last bank is closing in a town. I think we need to be very careful about encouraging and almost opening the floodgates for banks to rush to close branches in rural communities and, indeed, right across Northern Ireland.

An independent review of the BBA's bank branch protocol was announced in May. The review will provide proposals for the Northern Ireland high street banks. It is being led by Professor Russell Griggs, who is a friend of Northern Ireland and has been involved in banking issues here, and will consider the way banks have applied the protocol, as well as the outcomes for affected customers and communities.

The post office network has been mentioned by many contributors. It can also provide an important role in solving the problem. With the exception of First Trust, which provides only limited services, all banks operating in Northern Ireland provide access to banking services through post offices. However, more needs to be done on that to promote these services, as research by the Consumer Council shows that, while satisfaction levels were high with post office banking services, standing at some 81%, only one in four customers had used the post office for banking services.

The post office branch network is undergoing its own network transformation programme to make it more viable. There are 477 post offices across Northern Ireland. Of those, 326, or 60%, are in rural areas, and the Consumer Council estimates that an additional 10,500 extra opening hours have been added through this process.

There is no doubt that access to online banking and financial services is important. Digital services have undoubtedly changed the way consumers engage with banks, and reliable broadband is essential for accessing these services. I very much recognise that some consumers who have faced or are facing closure of their local bank may not have access to the reliable broadband or mobile connection that is necessary to properly support online banking.

My Department administers the Northern Ireland Better Broadband project. That provides access to subsidised broadband installation to homes and businesses that are unable to access a broadband service with a download speed of at least two megabits per second. In addition, we are working with the communications regulator, Ofcom, which consulted earlier this year on implementing a UK Government proposal for a universal service obligation to give all households a right to request a broadband connection within a reasonable cost threshold and offering speeds of 10 megabits per second by 2020. Broadband availability in Northern Ireland is increasing, with 94% of households having access to basic broadband services and some 77% to superfast services.

In addition, 72% of people use a smartphone, and significant investment is under way by mobile network operators, aimed at addressing partial not-spots by 2017. It is envisaged that mobile not-spots will be reduced to 0·3% of land mass by the time these investments are complete. Research from Ofcom shows that 62% of Internet users in Northern Ireland bank online. However, 38% of Northern Ireland consumers said that they would still not be confident about accessing a bank account online. Clearly, more work is needed to make this a viable alternative for high-street branches.

Access to cash machines is also a very real issue for rural areas. In 2007, the then Department of Finance and Personnel introduced rate relief measures aimed at businesses in rural areas, which gave a full exemption from rates to ATMs located in rural areas. The aim of the policy was to encourage and sustain the provision of ATMs in rural areas. I am very pleased to say that, when the policy was introduced, there were 37 ATMs in rural areas, and today, as a result of the policy, the number of eligible ATMs has increased to 82. That is a success story that the Executive have delivered.

The credit union network can also help to support the rural community. According to the Irish League of Credit Unions, membership has doubled in the past 10 years. Whilst credit unions do not offer the full range of services of a high-street bank, their network and the number of people who use their services have an important impact across Northern Ireland. Most are community-founded and locally based, and they are an important element in increasing and maintaining financial inclusion across Northern Ireland.

Understandably, the closure of rural banks is a real concern. I thank the Consumer Council for its efforts to work with banks to mitigate the negative impacts and for the research that it has carried out into consumer attitudes to banking following recent branch closures. Its research shows that 80% of customers had visited a bank branch in the last year, consumers aged 55 and over are more likely to visit a bank branch than younger customers, and disabled customers are more likely to be affected by bank branch closures. The Consumer Council is working with the Bank of Ireland on its proposed bank closures to ensure that communities affected are left resilient to the change. It has proposed to the Bank of Ireland an action plan that includes suggestions that the bank provide drop-in sessions to give affected consumers information on continuing to access their bank account; support and training to consumers on online banking options; resource packs of information that compare different bank accounts, facilities, switching advice and other methods of payment; and accessibility audits of the alternative arrangements that are being put in place for disabled consumers.

As customers, we are changing how we interact with banks. An increasing number of us are going online to carry out transactions. Banks need to lower their cost base, which can lead to branch closures. However, banks in Northern Ireland have to make significant decisions about how they interact with their customers.

I have spoken about growing our economy but doing so in a way that serves the common good in Northern Ireland. As we grow our economy, I do not want us to lose sight of the values that make Northern Ireland a special place to live in. One of those values is that of community. We have a very strong sense of community in Northern Ireland. Whether or not we like banks, they are part of that community. They have a broader responsibility to their customers in Northern Ireland, which is not always evident from their behaviour. I recognise that it will be a challenge, but I encourage our banks to ensure that they take informed decisions that take full account of the likely impact on local and, in particular, rural communities. I will do my best to have an open-door relationship with our banks because it is vital that we truly understand each other. That relationship should be mutually beneficial to the needs of the banks and the wider economy and society in Northern Ireland.

In conclusion, Northern Ireland needs a strong, vibrant banking sector and effective relationships to ensure that our economy and rural communities can continue to grow and prosper.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin 4:45 pm, 26th September 2016

As outlined by my colleague Caoimhe Archibald, the amendment adds to the motion, as there are substantial infrastructural deficits that mean that Internet banking is not accessible to many rural businesses and dwellers. As mentioned, that does not solve the issue of cash lodgements and withdrawals for businesses. Unfortunately, we do not have control of banks and how they choose to deliver their services. However, as customers, there is an expectation that the bank that we use can meet our requirements. There needs to be an innovative approach to the issue, and the Minister should have proper engagement with banks to discuss how services can be delivered and retained in rural areas. Many examples have been given here today of how that could be done.

My town of Coalisland, which has quite an urban base, is without a bank. Mr McGlone mentioned Maghera. We talk about towns and businesses needing to use Internet banking, but one half of Maghera town does not have access to broadband. One half of the businesses in that town do not have access to broadband, so it is impossible for them to do Internet banking. Mr McGlone also mentioned Mid Ulster, which has the largest number of VAT-registered businesses outside Belfast. It is a very innovative area, where people got up and out to start their own businesses. They made the effort, but they often feel that they do not get the support from central government to remain in Mid Ulster.

Generational difficulties were also raised, in that many of our older people have difficulty accessing the Internet. Going to the bank was part of their routine; it was a social thing. My colleague Declan raised that.

There is a loss of business in areas where there is no bank, because people do their business where they do their banking. Often, if you pass Coalisland to go to Dungannon to do your banking, you will do your shopping there as well. That is an issue for businesses that are trying to survive in a difficult economic climate. Banks can talk the talk about consumer focus, but, when it boils right down to it, it is all about profit. That has been well highlighted here today.

Broadband is not a substitute; online banking is not the answer. Even though it can be used in certain areas, it cannot be availed of in many of our rural areas. The Minister said that viability was the driver for bank closures in this new age of technology. Whilst I accept that that may be the case, I would like to highlight the fact that that is the case only in big towns and cities where there is good Internet connection, not in rural areas. It has been pointed out by several Members that the new age of technology has not yet reached many of our rural areas.

I have some questions over the stats that the Minister gave today. I can assure you that 94% of homes and businesses across Mid Ulster and many other areas of the rural North do not have a decent standard of broadband. The broadband that many have is so poor that you cannot use it, so those stats need to be questioned. I wonder whether they were rural proofed and checked against what is available in rural areas of the North rather than an average being taken across the North. I definitely question those statistics.

I commend the amendment. I hope that we will get support for it in the House, given that there is an issue. The motion is about protecting, standing up for and looking after our rural areas. We need to look at everything. In addition to the bank closures, there is the issue of broadband connection and all the infrastructure that rural parts of the North have been left without for many years. Whilst we are trying to address it now that we have people here in a legislative Assembly who can do something about it, the many years of neglect have left their mark.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:00 pm, 26th September 2016

The most striking thing in the debate was how consistent the remarks were across the House, which goes to show that the issue affects the greater population of the North. It affects many people, and most of us, as representatives, know people in our community who are directly affected by this. I look back to the beginning of the debate and the contribution from my colleague Richie McPhillips. He talked about 7,000 people in Belleek being mobilised to sign a petition. That is a huge population in a rural area who are concerned that they will lose out on services.

I will summarise some of the issues raised. Caoimhe Archibald talked about how the broadband issue added to the problem. I will probably come back to that in a little more detail towards the end. There is nothing in there that one could disagree with initially, but one has to ask how it sits alongside the motion. She mentioned important things for rural communities, such as access to transport. We know that transport in rural areas is a big issue and that starting to move banks 20 or 30 miles away from people would have a direct impact. Another issue mentioned by Caoimhe was footfall. The people coming into towns and villages to use the banks also, we hope, use the shops next door or across the road. As representatives of our communities, we all aspire to attracting people into towns for one reason and getting them to spend for other reasons, and that would be impacted on if services started to reduce.

Mr Buchanan referred to the emotive issue of how closing services in a rural area led to fear, particularly among our older population. What we are asking is this: do we want to be seen to be sitting back and doing nothing when a sector is consistently closing services, resulting in fear among our older population? Just sitting back and doing nothing does not seem a very good thing to do. At that stage, there was an intervention from my colleague Daniel McCrossan, who referred to the eight additional Bank of Ireland closures. He highlighted the fact that the eight additional closures are not for profit reasons; those eight branches are managing to deliver a profit for the bank. If it is not for profit reasons, why is the bank taking those services out of rural areas? It seems very strange, and maybe the Department can discuss that with the Bank of Ireland to find out what the motivation is.

Rosemary Barton acknowledged the change in our banking world but said that the onus should be on banks to provide at least one bank in each village. It feels as though they are all running away from the rural community. Can they not get together and try to maintain a network of branches across the rural community? She also highlighted the fact that residents of Belleek will have to go 25 miles to the nearest bank and 25 miles back — a 50-mile round journey. My bank is about a third of a mile from my front door, and I detest having to go down to it and go through the whole process, but it has to be done. Imagine having to make a 50-mile round journey to lodge a cheque. That really is not serviceable for people, and I know that she has called on the Executive to meet the Bank of Ireland. I know that the Minister said that he had met a number of the banks, and I hope that that can be extended.

Kellie Armstrong highlighted the Federation of Small Businesses issue and how branch closures were disproportionately impacting on rural areas. That was another theme picked up by a number of Members who contributed today. Declan brought up the requirement for rural proofing under legislation passed by the Assembly about a year ago. He said that, with government services, we should be careful not to walk away from the rural community. It is important for us as an Assembly to say that we will not just sit back and let the private sector turn its back on the rural community; we want to do what we can to service and support those in rural areas. Kellie also raised an issue that will resonate greatly with the public: we stuck by the banks when they made huge profits and bust just about everything else. Rural people stuck by their banks, and we now ask the banks, given that it is not an issue of profit, to stick by their customers. That is an important message: the people did what they could, and now they are asking the banks to do their bit.

There was a reference to older people interacting with technology. It is not an easy task for older people to move to online banking. It is not necessarily an easy task for younger people either; sometimes, they have to go to a branch to get issues sorted out. Members raised an important issue: when it is required, you like to have the face-to-face contact. If it is not a profit issue, why can that service not be passed on?

William Irwin highlighted the issue of the loss to rural areas. Again, the feeling among rural communities that they are losing out is a common theme. He also talked about the large profits that the banks make. If they are making those large profits, what are they going to give back to the community? Where is the social responsibility of big businesses to local people?

Declan McAleer said that the community had been let down and talked about social responsibility and how important it was that many people in deprived areas were going to lose out. It seems that the banks are picking on the most vulnerable. Is that really a responsible thing for banks to do?

Gordon Dunne highlighted that 77 branches had closed in Northern Ireland in the last number of years. If that was any other service, we would all be getting quite exercised. That a network of 77 of anything would be lost across the North would be a big disappointment, and it will have a big effect. It is timely that the motion was brought here today.

We also discussed online banking and those who do not have the skills. It is not just the elderly; there are maybe people with poor literacy and numeracy levels who are not able to use an app to sort out their banking as quickly as others can. As was mentioned, if those people are then left with big journeys to undertake, there is a sense of unfairness. As well as that, we talked about the lack of consultation. If the banks had carried out a true and proper consultation in rural areas they would have heard, loud and clear, all these issues over and over again, which might have made them think twice about what they were doing.

Steve Aiken said that 68% of customers had attended a bank in the previous month. We got a couple of statistics from Members that highlighted that the branches are being used; it is not that they are lying empty. People are going to them. They want to use them, and the banks are not losing profits. Really, then, what is this all about?

My colleague, Patsy McGlone, said that this was not just a Bank of Ireland issue. That is important: all banks seem to be reducing their provision in rural communities, and we need to address that. The Minister mentioned that he had met a number of banks and the issue is across the whole platform of banking services. Mr McGlone also referred to the gradual retreat of the banks from rural areas. That is something that we want to reverse. We do not want to sit back and allow a gradual retreat of anything from our rural communities.

The Minister acknowledged that there had been changes in how we carry out our banking and, therefore, it is something that the banks may have to address. However, he also acknowledged the impact of bank closures and the effect that they had. I liked the fact that he mentioned the "unbanked" community — those who are not bank customers — who represent 10% of the community, which is a very high number. What are we going to do to encourage those people to use banks if we are starting to reduce the visibility of banks in our community? I hope that the meetings with the banks can continue so that the elected representatives of Northern Ireland can impress on them the need for those banks to be in rural communities.

I will turn quickly to the amendment. We do not want to confuse the issue, and that is why we are not going to support the amendment. This is not about broadband. I take the spirit in which the amendment was tabled, but the opening line of the motion is:

"That this Assembly is extremely concerned at the number of bank branches that are being closed in rural areas".

It is not about online banking, and we must not confuse the two. If we ended up with superfast broadband across the North, we would still have bank branches closing. We say that that is not good for footfall, for our communities or for our elderly people. The amendment does not address all those issues, so we will not support it. We commend the motion to the House, and we hope that we can get full support for it.

Question put, That the amendment be made. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 48; Noes 22


Mr Agnew, Ms Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Ms Boyle, Mr M Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mr Carroll, Mr Clarke, Ms Dillon, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Dr Farry, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hazzard, Mr Humphrey, Mr Kearney, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mrs Long, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland, Mr McElduff, Mr McGuigan, Miss McIlveen, Mr McMullan, Mr Maskey, Mr Milne, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr Robinson, Ms Seeley, Mr Sheehan, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Mr Weir

Tellers for the Ayes: Ms Archibald, Mr McAleer


Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Attwood, Mrs Barton, Mr Beggs, Ms S Bradley, Mr Chambers, Mrs Dobson, Mr Durkan, Ms Hanna, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McKee, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Mullan, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Smith, Mr Swann

Tellers for the Noes: Mr McGrath, Mr Mullan

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly is extremely concerned at the number of bank branches that are being closed in rural areas; is alarmed that large rural areas are without access to a local bank branch; recognises the limitations of many of the alternatives, such as mobile and Internet banking, and the Post Office, particularly given the limitations of broadband and mobile Internet provision in rural areas; believes that the provision of accessible banking is an integral part of social inclusion, with a particular impact on the elderly; notes the negative economic impact bank closures have on small businesses and on future investment opportunities; calls on the Minister for the Economy to intervene meaningfully and encourage the banking sector to maintain a strong network of rural bank branches and to safeguard the existing bank branches within these communities from closure; and further calls on the Minister to commit to investing in identifying and addressing the problem of rural areas where no, or no worthwhile, broadband and mobile provision can be received.