Financial Services and Markets Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 3rd November 2022.
“(1) The Treasury and the FCA must jointly undertake a review of the state of access to essential in-person banking services for local communities in the United Kingdom, and jointly prepare a report on the outcome of the review.
(2) “Essential in-person banking services” include services which are delivered face-to-face and which local communities require regular access to. These may include services provided in banks, banking hubs, or other service models.
(3) The report mentioned in subsection (1) must be laid before the House of Commons as soon as practicable after the review has been undertaken.
(4) The report mentioned in subsection (1) must propose a minimum level of access to essential in-person banking services which must be provided by banks and building societies in applicable local authority areas in the United Kingdom, for the purpose of ensuring local communities have adequate access to essential in-person banking services.
(5) The applicable local authority areas mentioned in subsection (4) are local authority areas in which, in the opinion of the FCA, local communities have a particular need for the provision of essential in-person banking services.
(6) In any applicable local authority area which, according to the results of the review undertaken under subsection (1) falls below the minimum level of access mentioned in subsection (4), the FCA may give directions for the purpose of ensuring essential in-person banking services meet the minimum level of access required by subsection (4).
(7) A direction under subsection (6) may require a minimum level of provision of essential in-person banking services through mandating, for example—
(a) a specified number of essential in-person banking services within a geographical area, or
(b) essential in-person banking services to operate specific opening hours.”—
This new clause would require the Treasury and FCA to conduct and publish a review of community need for, and access to, essential in-person banking services, and enable the FCA to ensure areas in need of essential in-person banking service have a minimum level of access to such services.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this, it will be convenient to discuss new clause 5—Essential banking services access policy statement—
“(1) The Treasury must lay before the House of Commons an essential banking services access policy statement within six months of the passing of this Act.
(2) An ‘essential banking services access policy statement’ is a statement of the policies of His Majesty’s Government in relation to the provision of adequate levels of access to essential in-person banking services in the United Kingdom.
(3) ‘Essential in-person banking services’ include services which are delivered face-to-face, and may include those provided in banks, banking hubs, or other service models.
(4) The policies mentioned in sub-section (2) may include those which relate to—
(a) ensuring adequate availability of essential in-person banking services;
(b) ensuring adequate provision of support for online banking training and internet access, for the purposes of ensuring access to online banking; and
(c) expectations of maximum geographical distances service users should be expected to travel to access essential in-person banking services in rural areas.
(5) The FCA must have regard to the essential banking services access policy statement when fulfilling its functions.”
This new clause would require the Treasury to publish a policy statement setting out its policies in relation to the provision of essential in-person banking services, including policies relating to availability of essential in-person banking services, support for online banking, and maximum distances people can expect to travel to access services.
I would like to say from the outset that I will push new clauses 4 and 5 to the vote.
New clause 4 would require the Treasury and the FCA to conduct and publish a review of the community need for, and access to, essential in-person banking services, and enable the FCA to ensure that areas in need of such services receive them, and to make sure that banking services have a minimum level of access.
New clause 5 would require the Treasury to publish a policy statement setting out its policies in relation to the provision of essential in-person banking services, including policies relating to availability of such services, support for online banking and maximum distances that people can expect to travel to access banking services.
Of course Labour welcomes the fact that, after years and years, we finally have a Bill that introduces protection for access to cash. However, the Bill has some serious gaps that we are concerned about. We have already debated in a previous sitting the Government’s failure to guarantee free access to cash, but this Bill also does nothing to protect essential face-to-face banking services, which the most vulnerable people in our society depend on for financial advice and support.
Analysis published by the consumer group Which? found that almost half the UK’s bank branches have closed since 2015. That has cut off countless people from essential services. In its written evidence to us, Age UK called for the Bill to be amended to protect the in-person services that older people rely on, such as the facility to open a new account or apply for a loan, to ensure that banking services can meet their needs.
However, it is not just older people who struggle without support. Natalie Ceeney, chair of the Cash Action Group, who many Committee members will know, warned us at our evidence session of the significant overlap between those who rely on access to cash—around 10 million British adults—and those who need face-to-face support. She said that
“every time I meet a community, the debate goes very quickly from cash to banking. It all merges. The reason is we are talking about the same population.”––[Official Report, Financial Services and Markets Public Bill Committee,
She is completely right: it is the most vulnerable, the poorer people in society and the older members of society, who depend on that extra face-to-face help, for instance in making or receiving payments, or dealing with a standing order. These are the people who will be left behind if this question about banking is left completely unaddressed. Nor should we forget those without the digital skills needed to bank online, people in rural areas with poor internet connection, or the growing number who cannot afford to pay for data or wi-fi as the cost of living crisis deepens.
As the FCA warned in its written evidence to us, the powers granted to the regulator by this Bill do not extend to the provision of wider banking services beyond cash access. That is why I hope the Minister will today commit to supporting new clauses 4 and 5, which will give the FCA the powers it needs to protect essential in-person banking services.
Just to be clear, Labour is not calling for banks to be prevented from closing branches that are no longer needed—far from it. Access to face-to-face services could be delivered through a shared banking hub or other models of community provision. We also recognise that banking systems will inevitably continue to innovate, which is a good thing. Online banking is a far more convenient way for people to make payments and manage their finances. However, we must ensure—indeed, as constituency MPs we have a duty to ensure—that the digital revolution does not further deepen financial exclusion in this country.
That would require protecting face-to-face services and putting in place a proper strategy for digital exclusion and inclusion. Banking hubs or other models of community provision must be part of that solution. These spaces have the potential to tackle digital exclusion through their dedicated staff, who can teach people how to bank online and provide internet access for those without it. I was delighted to hear this week’s announcement from the Cash Action Group that the sector will be launching additional banking hubs on a voluntary basis, but if we want to ensure that no one is left behind—the most vulnerable in our society—these services must be protected by legislation. I ask the Minister to support these two new clauses.
I rise to support new clauses 4 and 5, which we know are supported by our constituents. No matter what kind of constituency we represent, whether it is wealthy, rural or urban, people are desperate for face-to-face services. Recently, in Mitcham town centre, Barclays and Halifax have closed. I stood outside both branches for a week during their opening hours, asking customers why they wanted face-to-face services and if they used online banking. In both cases, about 50% of customers had no access to online services, either because they did not know how to access them or were too frightened to use them because they were concerned about being scammed. That is an enormous concern, but it is completely rational and understandable, when we consider how many people are scammed.
This is about those quintessentially un-financial market issues of community and human contact. The closure of our banks and building societies is symptomatic of so much more—of our town centres being destroyed, of people feeling excluded from progress and the new society, and even of their feelings of loneliness. I am not suggesting that it is the banks’ job to resolve issues of loneliness, but we can talk about these issues as much as we like; people crave human contact to give them the confidence to use financial services and their bank accounts.
The branch staff do an enormous amount for our communities by protecting some of our most vulnerable constituents from doing things they really should not do, such as giving their life savings to people who they have never met who have offered to marry them. So much goes on in our banks and building societies, but it is only through the closure of banks in my town centre that I have understood what is really happening. Banks are retreating from branches on the high street but also from phone services. The number of banks that will allow people to do things by phone is reducing. Anyone here who has tried to contact their bank by phone knows that unless they have a significant amount of credit on their phone, they will not get through any time soon.
I thank my hon. Friend for the incredible speech that she is making. Looking at the Royal National Institute of Blind People briefing, does she agree how important it is for visually impaired or blind people to be able to access telephone and face-to-face banking services?
Absolutely. As always, I agree with my hon. Friend. I think we will see an even greater explosion of financial fraud if there is an ever-quickening closure of branches in our town centres, and even more reductions in the ability to access services by phone. Unless there is regulation, we can appeal to the best motives of banks and building societies, but I understand that they are challenged. They have new competitors that do not have the infrastructure of the branches or staff. They are doing everything online, but they are doing it for a particular segment of society that does not, and will not, include everybody. We really have to grapple with that.
The work by the CASH Coalition has been excellent, but unless there is pressure from regulation, that will not happen. The idea that we all have to wait for the last bank in our town centre to close before we can even start thinking about a banking hub is as good as useless. I am only saying things that every member of the Committee knows, and that we know the consequences of. We have an opportunity today to do something about it on behalf of our most vulnerable constituents.
It is a pleasure to follow the powerful speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Hampstead and Kilburn and for Mitcham and Morden on this important issue. It is not an issue that affects most people, who have been able to make the switch to online banking and find it more convenient—although it has to be said that there is an increasing level of worry about online banking services because of the increasing prevalence of fraud and scams. We dealt with that in earlier parts of the Bill, but we touched only the very edge of it, as the tide of the problem rises. I am sure that we will come back to the issue many times in future Bills.
A significant number of our constituents cannot participate, for whatever reason, in the IT and tech changes that have made banking available on our phones and computer screens, and that allow us to chat to various bots that put us through to the places where we need to go. I do not know whether the Minister has had occasion to phone a bank recently or, to be honest, any other service after the pandemic, but it is one of the most frustrating things that anyone has to do. It seems there is only one phone line for all the telephone access points. One has to hang on listening to appalling music for hours on end.
We will have to come in a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Bill to outlawing the appalling music that one has to listen to when trying to access any kind of service, private or public, by phone. We have to remember that many people cannot hang on the phone forever. They cannot afford to, and they are the people who tend to need the most help. They may have pay-as-you-go phones that run out quite rapidly. They may be unable to afford to hang on at the whim of an artificial intelligence bot, or the fewer and fewer actual human beings at the other end. They cannot access even ordinary banking in the way that the majority of people do. As I have said, that can be for a number of reasons. All Members present may get to a stage in our lives when we cannot either, and when we cannot remember our PIN numbers.
We already have trouble with our PIN numbers, but many people’s memories fail as they get older, or they may be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or other dementias. They cannot remember things, they cannot deal with the security issues that are required to make banking in this way safe, and they cannot go and ask somebody to help them.
On that point, will my hon. Friend flag to the Minister that, if a bank machine does not have buttons and is just a touch screen, it is very difficult for blind and partially sighted people to know where the numbers are, so as to put their PIN in correctly? That is another reason why face-to-face banking is so important.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point: tech developments sometimes leave people behind. That is not usually deliberate; sometimes it is thoughtless. However, we in Parliament must ensure that all citizens in this country are able to participate in what is, increasingly, effectively a utility, even though it is not in public hands—I make no comment one way or the other about that. Being unable to access banking services for whatever reason is a real disadvantage, whatever an individual’s age or time of life.
That is a primary reason why we must ensure that what the market cannot provide, regulation provides. I am interested in what the Minister has to say about that. This issue will get bigger as more and more services go online. Regulation cannot happen merely at the end of a process, when access has completely disappeared. Even in some places where bank offices still exist, not everybody can access them. As a Parliament, we are people who point our regulators in particular directions to deal with emerging issues, and this is an important one. I look forward to what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I will make a short speech. It is more of a speech of curiosity. I listened very carefully to my next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden, who said what most members of the Committee would probably say. She will know as well as I do that everybody looks at my constituency and thinks “leafy Wimbledon suburbia”. But she will also know that parts of south Wimbledon, of Raynes Park and of Morden town centre, which we share, have exactly the problems that she spoke about.
I may have misheard the hon. Lady, but she said that she did not wish to compel banks to stay open, or did not think that we necessarily could do so, and she spoke therefore about the establishment of banking hubs. What I am curious about is how banking hubs would be established. Are we saying that, as part of getting or maintaining a banking licence, there should be a contribution to a social fund, so that banking hubs can be established around the country? Are we saying that that levy should be extended, particularly because some of the harm that we are talking about is the rise of online banking? Should online banks make a contribution to the cost of those banking hubs? Or are we saying—I think it was said that the hubs should be inside local authority areas—that local authorities should offer them, for instance in town centres?
That is a genuine point of curiosity. As in previous discussions with the hon. Members for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, for Wallasey, and for Mitcham and Morden—my next-door neighbour—there is huge sympathy for ensuring that our constituents, including vulnerable constituents, have access to banking services. But we need to more tightly define the practicality of how we ensure that they have that access.
I am completely open-minded about how the hubs are paid for, but they have to be paid for from the banking sector itself. I would not wish to put the responsibility on already overstretched local authorities. Many high street banks have had decades of loyal support from these customers, and they cannot just walk away from that responsibility and ignore them. They have been good, loyal customers. There should be a banking hub, but not at the point that the last bank closes. We need to have a view towards what happens in the future. There can be collaboration about sites, but there needs to be access to those services.
That is extremely helpful in setting out the thought processes behind the new clause. One of the issues that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn might wish to clarify is that, if the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden is correct, the new clause has to contain the stipulation that to get a banking licence in the United Kingdom, one needs to pay a certain amount of social levy so that banking hubs can be established. For me, that is the issue with the clause. I therefore suggest that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn might want to take it away and bring it back on Report, or have a discussion with the Minister about exactly how the levy that the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden is effectively talking about is to be established. This new clause does not make that clear, and therefore, frankly, the practicality of the new clause—notwithstanding that we all agree with its intent—is clearly flawed.
I once again note the strength of feeling on both sides of the Committee. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden has spoken in a number of debates on clauses of the Bill about the importance of bank branches to our constituencies and local communities. When I visit her constituency to see the opening of the new cash machine, perhaps I will be able to review the provision for myself.
The Government do not support the new clause, but if I may make eyes at the Opposition, I would be very open to accepting an amendment about appalling hold music, as suggested by the hon. Member for Wallasey. That is something to look forward to—I am not sure I should say that in front of my Whip, but one has immense sympathy with the point made.
There are very real issues here, which no one disputes. I am familiar with the sobering challenges that the hon. Member for Wallasey talked about. I know from my meetings with charities that one in three of us will end up with dementia. The RNIB has done fantastic work for those with impaired sight or sight loss, and Age UK does lots of great work in our constituencies—very practical work, as well as raising these issues. I am very open to meeting representatives of all three organisations, so I am happy to give that commitment: they are on my long list of people to meet in this role.
Notwithstanding the wider debate about the role of statute in protecting bank branches from closure, I am keen that we harness the positive uses of technology to try to solve problems. We know that voice recognition can help people who are partially sighted, and the internet now has a great deal more regulation—every website now has accessibility options for people with sight issues—so there are things we can do to close that delta. The point about the importance of the consumer voice is also very well made and understood. It is very important that we make sure there is the right level of consumer representation and consumer voice across our entire financial regulatory system, rather than its representatives solely being producers or practitioners.
This might not be strictly within the scope of the new clause, but will the Minister take away the point about the problems with touchpads when people pay for things in shops? With flat surfaces, it is incredibly difficult for visually impaired and partially sighted people to know which buttons they are pressing when entering their PIN number. It is one of those cases where, as the Minister has said, technology advances and does not mean to discriminate against people, but it is causing difficulties.
I do understand that point, and I will take it away. We are all challenged by the wonderful two-factor authentication that even the parliamentary authorities require of us as we log in, and I understand that as we move from analogue to digital, some really important protections are sometimes lost.
The availability of alternative channels by which customers can access their banking means that this issue is quite distinct from access to cash. We have talked about access to cash, and we understand the significant steps forward presented in the Bill and the new duty on the FCA. That is very positive. Where a branch is the only source of cash access services, the closure of that branch will be within the scope of the powers, which starts to address the issue of branch closure. We are giving the FCA powers to do its job. As we know, the purpose of the Bill is to give the FCA powers, not for Parliament to be overly prescriptive. In that circumstance, the FCA could delay the closure until some other reasonable provision for access to cash applied.
The Minister mentions the FCA, and I also want to take the chance to respond to the earlier comments by the hon. Member for Wimbledon. I am not endorsing a specific model—this is something to consider—but the proposed banking hub could work in exactly the same way as the current banking hub model, which is funded by the sector and regulated by the FCA, which also ensures that sites provide in-person services as well. If the Minister is willing to talk further on the provisions in the new clause—the hon. Member for Wimbledon was generous in suggesting that he would do so—I would be happy to explore banking hub models with him.
There is a great deal of good evolution. I suspect that members on both sides of the Committee would say that it has come quite late in the process, but nevertheless there has been evolution in the banking hub solution—that dynamic, sector-led initiative—as well as the work of the Post Office, which offers in-person facilities for a wide range of, if not all, transactions. There may be a gradient of availability, but post offices that offer a certain range of services to deal with the most common and frequently made transactions are almost ubiquitous. The need to travel for more complex needs would not be an unsurprising feature in this market.
I welcome the initiatives developed by the Cash Action Group, Natalie Ceeney and UK Finance, and implemented by LINK, which are making the local assessments to determine where shared solutions are most appropriate. The industry has committed to shared bank hubs in 29 locations across the UK. Yesterday, it committed to a further four, in Luton, Surrey, Prestatyn, and Welling in south-east London. There is a good rate of change coming now, albeit from a low base.
The Government’s perspective is that while many people need and prefer to use in-person banking services, at this time it would not be proportionate to legislate to intervene in the market. Instead, we want to see the impact of closures understood, considered and mitigated wherever possible by the array of initiatives that have been put forward. I will continue to work with the sector, the FCA and other stakeholders from both sides—I mentioned some earlier—on this important issue.
The Minister says that it is not enough of a problem at the moment to legislate. Why might that be the case? This is not going to become less of an issue. As more people get to the stage where they cannot access services, I suspect it will get worse rather than better. Could he give the Committee an idea of his thinking about how bad the situation would have to get before regulation would be appropriate? We must make certain that we do not leave millions of people behind and shut them out of access to necessary banking services.
While taking nothing away from the hon. Member’s view, and indeed her experience in this space, I do not entirely share her pessimism that it is a one-way street and that the problem will only get worse. Solutions will be deployed. The rate at which banking hubs can be deployed, the sorts of services that people use, and technology will all evolve. I talked earlier, as she did, about some of the challenges of an ageing society in which loneliness is prevalent, both in urban and rural areas. There are initiatives, both community-led and technological, to help with some of that. We do not decry in any way the statement that there is a problem. I do not think that Members have heard that from me, or from any Government Members. The aim is to proceed in a proportionate manner.
The Minister talks about how he wants the impact of closures to be understood in the decision-making process. Understood by whom? The banks are telling us why they want to close their branches: they are saving money. The FCA is saying, “The banks are closing their branches to save money.” Our constituents know what it means to lose a bank branch. There is nothing new here. We understand why banks are closing their branches: they want to save cash. They do not want to continue a local service for our constituents, so what does the Minister mean by “understood”? Understood by whom—the banks, the FCA or our constituents?
Ultimately, the banks are downstream of the widespread issue that is the change in consumer behaviour. We have heard both in evidence and in comments made in Committee that 86% of transactions are now digital. The use case of going to a bank branch has evolved rapidly in my lifetime and the lifetime of all Committee members. That is the ultimate macro issue that we are dealing with. Is that issue understood? I think it is.
Solutions could be brought to the table, in terms of both a greater toolkit for the FCA and greater prominence and scrutiny of the FCA as it uses the existing toolkit and the new powers in the Bill. There are also industry-led solutions, which having perhaps started slowly are increasing at greater pace. Proportionality is about giving those developing trends time to mature to see what models can be developed, while accepting the underlying need for action.
I therefore ask the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn to withdraw the motion.