The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-14782, in the name of Sandra White, on planned Bank of Scotland branch closures. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament condemns the Bank of Scotland’s intention to close seven branches across the country; understands that thousands of Bank of Scotland customers who depend on branches in Burnside, Dundee, Keith, Kirriemuir, Lossiemouth, Paisley, Stonehouse and Glasgow St George’s Cross in the Glasgow Kelvin constituency will be negatively affected by the closures; considers that there is a need for a continued face-to-face banking service in local communities for those who remain reliant on high street branches, and believes that national banks have a duty to fully consult their customers before making such critical decisions.
I thank all members who have supported my motion and enabled a debate on the very important subject of planned Bank of Scotland branch closures.
I note that Neil Findlay lodged a question regarding bank closures last year and that there was a members’ business debate on the closures in December 2017, which was led by Kate Forbes, who is now the Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy. We should take note of the Scottish Government’s response to Neil Findlay’s question. It stated:
“banks should commit to work with the local communities they serve to establish a range of delivery channels that best meets the needs of their customers, including access to local, physical banking services”.—[
, 2 May 2018; S5W-16023.]
Here we are, nearly a year on from the previous debate, facing more bank branch closures. Banks continue to renege on their commitment to meet the needs of local communities, including the business sector.
I will read out an email from one of my constituents, which sets out exactly how the closure of the Bank of Scotland branch at St George’s Cross, in my constituency, affects that community and the areas beyond. I will not say the person’s name, but I will read their email. My constituent says:
“I am emailing you in regards to the Bank of Scotland’s decision to close it’s branch at St George’s Cross. I find it very worrying that this closure will have a serious impact on the elderly and infirm and also local businesses. We are now in a position of not having a local Bank of Scotland from areas Bearsden, Torrance, Milton, Possilpark, Kelvindale, Kelvinbridge, Anniesland, Maryhill and Cowcaddens.”
That is quite a wide area. My constituent continues:
“The nearest bank branch will now be in the city centre. I am just wondering if you and your parliamentary colleagues would be willing to use your parliamentary influence to approach the Bank of Scotland in an effort to reverse their disgraceful decision to deprive the good people of Maryhill and beyond of a much needed and loved branch.”
I have replied to my constituent, making him aware that this debate is taking place. Perhaps the minister will follow up my constituent’s request and contact the Bank of Scotland on the issues that he has raised.
I received information from the Bank of Scotland, indicating the nearest branch following the closure of the St George’s Cross branch. Customers will now need to do their banking in person at the Byres Road branch, the Sauchiehall Street branch or the Argyle Street branch. Those branches are quite a distance away for an elderly or infirm person. In addition, the bank advocates the use of a Spar shop in Maryhill, a Day Today store in St George’s Road and a Nisa store on the Great Western Road.
That is simply not good enough. The bank is not serving local communities—particularly the frail and elderly, as I have said—or small and medium-sized businesses in my constituency, many of which rely on local banking facilities to bank their takings or change moneys.
The Bank of Scotland closed its Carnoustie branch, in my constituency, a little while back despite the fact that 47 per cent of its personal customers used no other bank and had no alternative means of banking. Some 45 per cent of the customers of the Kirriemuir branch, which is also in my constituency and which serves a rather large rural hinterland, use no other branch, and that branch is also under threat. Does Sandra White agree that the evidence from Angus suggests that the Bank of Scotland cares very little about the needs of its customers?
I absolutely concur with what my colleague has said and with what many others have said in emails that I have received, in phone calls and on visits to my constituency office. I think that the situation is much worse in Angus and other outlying areas, and I am sure that we will hear about that from members as they contribute to the debate.
Mention of local people and local businesses relying on banking facilities to bank their takings or change money takes me on to another issue. I do not know whether many members know about the use of white spaces in shops to supply some banking services but not all of them. That is a very worrying trend, and it is particularly problematic for those who use card accounts. Lots of people use card accounts to pay their rent and bills, but the white spaces that are starting to be created in local shops do not necessarily deal with card accounts. The situation has to be looked at, as card accounts are a lifeline for a lot of people and the only way that they can pay their bills. The issue has been raised with me quite often in connection with renting social housing from housing associations.
There is also a knock-on effect on post offices from banks closing. I know that that issue has been raised by a number of other members, as well as at Westminster.
It has been announced that the Burnside branch, in my constituency, is also closing. In addition, all the branches in Blantyre and Cambuslang have been closed. The consistent theme from the banks when they are closing is that people can go to post offices. Does the member agree that that is not a suitable alternative given that post offices are often at the back of shops, that there is a lack of privacy that causes concern, particularly among elderly people who go in to lift their pension or substantial sums of money, and that post offices do not provide the services that banks do?
Again, I concur with my colleague’s point. Branch closures mean not just a lack of personal banking but, as I will explain, a knock-on effect for post offices. There is certainly a knock-on effect for businesses that cannot leave money on their premises overnight.
It is worrying that post offices are being used as a substitute for banks, but post offices are being utilised more and more as branch closures take their toll. Those post offices are doing a fantastic job, some of them in very deprived areas where banks have closed and they are the only means whereby people can pay bills or get money out. However, the post offices and the banks are not being treated equally. That point has been made by the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which I have met and on whose behalf I will host an event in the Parliament. The sub-postmaster now gets less money when someone deposits money with a post office instead of with a bank.
The most worrying aspect of the inequality is the cost of operating ATMs. Banks and building societies are exempt from rates for ATMs, but post offices are not. They are required to pay the rates, and those costs are increasing. A real fear that I have heard from sub-postmasters and others is that post offices, which are becoming a lifeline for our communities, will not survive, because of a lack of support and moneys and because of increasing charges. What will happen then? The banks have a moral responsibility to look at the knock-on effect that they are having on post offices. I know that the issue has been raised at Westminster by colleagues there.
This is a very worrying time, because people should be able to access their banks in person. Not everybody does internet banking. I do not do it, because I like to talk to somebody in person, or I will phone. Many people do not like internet banking, and many do not even have access to a computer on which to do internet banking.
The bank closures are having a huge knock-on effect on communities and local businesses. For example, there are loads of small and medium-sized enterprises in my area that cannot bank their money and have to find a post office to deposit it in.
I hope that, in her summing up, the minister will answer some of the questions that have been raised by me and colleagues, and I hope that she will raise them with the banking industry. The banks have a social responsibility to the people they serve—businesses and local communities—and they should recognise that.
I thank Sandra White for bringing the debate to the chamber.
Although the bank branch network has been in decline for some time, it has become clear in recent years that the closing of branches has gained pace. That has left us in a position in which the very future of branch-based banking services is under threat. Those services are still utilised by a significant cross-section of our constituents, but we are potentially looking at a future, envisaged by our major banks, in which a truly nationwide branch network, covering small towns and villages like those that many of us represent, is no longer considered to be in their economic interest. What a future scaled-down network will look like and how banking services will continue to be offered to customers is still unclear.
Two of the branches affected—they are mentioned in the motion—are located in my region of the Highlands and Islands, in Keith and Lossiemouth. Both are relatively substantial settlements in Moray and maintain a range of businesses that might not be found in similarly sized towns in the central belt, but both are losing their Bank of Scotland branches, and the Bank of Scotland is removing the ATMs, too. The Bank of Scotland branch in Lossiemouth is the last remaining bank in that town, and the decision to close it comes at a time when the RAF is making a major investment in Lossiemouth—an investment that will bring hundreds of new residents, families and businesses to the town; but there will be no bank.
I thank the member for generously giving way and for raising the subject of the proposed bank closures in my constituency, in Keith and
Lossiemouth. I am sure that he is aware that Moray has lost 40 per cent of its high street bank branches in the past eight years and that there is a lot of anger about the proposals for
Does the member agree that, in the case of Lossiemouth in particular, where there is a proposal to shut the last bank in the community—with all the damage that that will inflict on the local community—extra safeguards should be put in place by the banks themselves or, if need be, by United Kingdom Government regulation to prevent that from happening?
I thank the member for that intervention. We have discussed that idea at the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, and we covered it during our inquiry on the impact of bank closures. We recognised not only that a particular view needs to be taken when it is the last bank in town but that there needs to be recognition of the particular impact that such closures can have in communities in areas such as the Highlands and Islands, where banks can be spread far apart.
That is the story of the Highlands and Islands. Our geography has meant that local residents are more dependent than most in Scotland on these small towns and the services that they provide. Although closures are a national trend, it is locally that the impact is most keenly felt. The two proposed closures in Moray have received objections from the local community, and my colleague Douglas Ross MP has organised public meetings in both towns to put residents’ concerns to the Bank of Scotland.
The meetings were attended by representatives from Moray Council, from local community councils, from the Post Office and from local business organisations including the Lossiemouth Business Association and the Federation of Small Businesses. However, they were not attended by representatives of the Bank of Scotland, who were empty-chaired at both meetings. lt would be unreasonable not to acknowledge that the greatest proportion of branch closures has not been in the Highlands and Islands. That was among the findings of the committee’s inquiry on the subject, and I do not dispute it. However, as I have said, the geography of the region means that closures can have a disproportionate effect. In many cases, the nearest alternatives are often more distant and less accessible, particularly by public transport.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise found a significant increase in the use of mobile and online transactions, as the report it commissioned on access to banking services sets out. Many banks have expanded the scope of their remote banking options in recent years—for example, allowing cheques to be paid in online—and that is to be commended. However, as the HIE report notes, such access is dependent on strong connectivity, which, in many parts of my region, is simply absent.
That is partly why cash transactions remain more common, particularly in the context of the region’s many small and medium-sized enterprises; yet, as I said, it is unclear how residents are expected to adapt. Although adopting the lessons of digital inclusion will be key, there is still a role for branch-based banking. One commonly heard issue is to do with the use of post offices for banking services. As many constituents tell us, the post office network itself has declined, which can present a particular problem for island communities, from whom even a cash machine can be distant.
The committee’s findings extended to a number of barriers to the Post Office simply taking over wholesale the role of branch banking. Banking hubs also present a mixture of benefits and challenges, but they potentially integrate better with other community facilities.
The reality is that significant reductions in the banking services that are available to remote and rural communities continue to create problems, and we are still seeing closures where the alternatives are not clear. That is a negative for communities that have grown used to having a local branch. In many cases, even small branches can be a keystone in maintaining town centres, and businesses react to closures. Most people are dismayed by the banks’ retreat from the high street and the number of closures that have been announced. It is to those views from their own customers that the banks should be listening.
Initially, I was going to articulate my arguments using the notes that I have in front of me but I have decided that I am sick of this nonsense—I am sick of getting a letter at the last minute from a major corporation or a bank telling me about the devastation that it is going to cause in my community. I am sick of getting an email telling me that it is only 0.8 miles to the nearest branch in Sauchiehall Street—most members will work out that Sauchiehall Street is not in Paisley. It was such a cut-and-paste effort that the bank had not taken the time to tell me that there was a Paisley south branch in my own home town.
I am angry about this because we are now in a position in Paisley where we have only one Bank of Scotland branch and one Royal Bank of Scotland branch. At one point, the Bank of Scotland had a south branch and two central branches plus one in the west and one in the east. Now we just have that one Bank of Scotland branch.
How are many of the older people in my community going to cope? Let us talk about the community in the south end of Paisley. There are three or four blocks of high flats that are full of families that have been in there since the day the flats were built, so there are now many older people there, and many of them have mobility issues. One of the blocks in particular has been adapted for older people with mobility issues. They bank in their local branch and they know the faces of the staff there, because they have seen them numerous times. They do not know one end of a computer from the other, so the banks should not ask them to do online banking.
The banks should also not ask them to go to the local post office. Many members have had subpostmasters come to us and say that they are struggling to make a living with the services that they offer. Every time a bank branch closure happens, the bank says that the only way forward is for people to get services at their local post office, but the post office network is under pressure, too, like the bank branch network. The banks should not say that every time they decide to make a commercial decision to close a branch—and it is a commercial decision. We bailed out the banks, but we are the ones who are still suffering after all these years.
It is the older and disabled people in the community in my town who are going to suffer. Paisley, which is the biggest town in Europe, let alone in Scotland, is going to have all the major banks within 200m of one another. Where is the logic in that? Where is the support that we have often asked the banks for? We have supported them. I have said to many of my constituents, “If they don’t support you and our community, don’t support them. Change your bank, because it’s a lot easier now than it was in the past.”
I have changed my bank. When the bank that I banked with for years was pulling out of Paisley, it told me that it had a lovely branch smack in the centre of Glasgow. I said, “Well, sorry, that’s it. We’re having a parting of the ways.” I went to a branch of a Scotland-based bank that had spent £400,000-odd on its headquarters in Paisley. I decided that, if it was going to invest in my town and show that there is a future in it, I would back it.
For far too long, the banks have thought that they can dictate to us. People get emails at the last minute. The emails are an afterthought. The banks do not even try to engage with the community and talk to it. They leave it to the parliamentarians at the last minute. We end up dragging them in, having the meetings with them and saying, “This community can’t have this.” I went through that with the Bank of Scotland in the east end of Paisley, which has a similar demographic of older people. We bring the banks in, and at that point they say, “We’ll listen to you and do what we can,” but they are just doing a tick-box exercise. They have no interest.
These institutions are purely in it for themselves. They need to remember that we are their customers and that our communities are the ones that are suffering. With regard to my branch, I ask the bank at this late stage to look at the matter again, look at the people it serves and make a different decision.
I am grateful to
Sandra White for bringing to the chamber this important debate on an issue that concerns us all. I think that we all share the anger that we have just felt from George Adam and the concern about the serious impact that bank branch closures are having and will have on the communities that we represent.
Several RBS branches in my Central Scotland parliamentary region have already faced closure, including those in Hamilton, Larkhall, Airdrie, Bellshill and Stepps. Now Stonehouse is facing the closure of its Bank of Scotland branch. That has happened—again—without full consultation with customers and it is another example of the banks treating loyal customers with contempt.
I am concerned about the cumulative impact of all the closures. Banks are literally profiting from the closures, and customers are paying the price, given the increased travel costs that are associated with having to go and visit branches in neighbouring towns or go into the cities. People are experiencing poorer customer service, with longer queues and waiting times as the remaining branches pick up the pieces.
Banks tell us that they are responding to changing customer behaviour, but what they are doing looks like a cost-cutting exercise, and communities are losing access to valued local banking services. I completely reject the idea that there is no demand for local banking services. High street bank branches are closing at the incredible rate of 60 a month, according to Which?, but a YouGov poll found that 58 per cent of people and 68 per cent of small business customers said that a bank branch is important to them. Sandra White’s constituent made the point very well.
Bank branch closures are not merely an inconvenience. I think that all members would agree that some of the most vulnerable people in society are hardest hit by branch closures. Sandra White talked about the impact on older people and people with disability and mobility issues, and Age Scotland has highlighted that a substantial proportion of older people in Scotland are not connected to the internet; the number increases with age.
A fifth of UK households are now more than 3km from their nearest branch, according to Which? Longer journeys are a concern for people with mobility issues, and the additional travel costs will affect the poorest, who simply do not have the spare cash to be able to get a bus to the bank—or indeed a taxi, if there is no bus service or the service is not reliable.
Members talked about the importance of local businesses being able to access banking. Such businesses are the backbone of our economy and will be damaged by the changes.
Bank branch closures lead to increasing reliance on ATMs, but free cashpoints are disappearing from our high streets and in their place are ATMs that charge their customers. In Stonehouse, which is losing its Bank of Scotland branch, two out of the five available ATMs charge customers. There is a risk of financial exclusion for vulnerable people.
This cannot continue. Communities need greater protection against banking and ATM deserts. No one should have to worry about having to travel more than 3km to access a bank or paying to access their own money. That is why Scottish Labour has called for mandatory consultations on bank branch closures. In Westminster, my Labour colleague Ged Killen, who is the member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, has led the way by proposing a ban on ATM charges. Labour is serious about the issue.
I again thank Sandra White for giving us the opportunity to discuss the matter, albeit briefly. We cannot abandon communities by leaving them without the basic banking infrastructure that they need. Banks have a responsibility to consult meaningfully with customers.
There is also a real and pressing need for Government intervention at UK level. Labour in Westminster and here at Holyrood will continue to condemn and oppose bank branch and ATM closures. We welcome the opportunity to work cross-party to stand up for our communities on the issue.
This is one of those occasions when I feel grateful that I am more than a sword’s length from any of my colleagues in the chamber, as I declare that I am a shareholder in the Bank of Scotland—of course, as a result of my 30 years of employment, which ceased nearly 20 years ago.
I start with a few facts about what is going on. The Scottish Parliament information centre tells us that a third of bank branches in Scotland closed in the past 10 years. Which? found that 78 per cent of consumers in the two lowest-income household groups rely on cash—indeed, 26 per cent of respondents in those groups said that they never use card payments—and that 80 per cent of over-65s rely on cash. Research by Reuters showed that 90 per cent of the bank branch closures in the past year occurred in areas where the median household income is below the national average.
Those statistics tell us that bank branch closures are adversely affecting the people who are least able to cope with them. Branch closure is a socially discriminatory activity, and we will all pay the price if it continues at the current rate.
ATMs are closing across the UK at a rate of 250 a month. I make a little observation about ATMs in Scotland: they should not be closing as fast. Because the Scottish banks issue their own bank notes, they can fill cash dispensers at no cost, beyond the cost of printing the money, whereas in England the banks have to pay a pound for every pound that they put in the cash dispenser. It is much cheaper to run ATMs in Scotland, so we should not see the same rate of closure. Typically, there will be £40,000 in a cash dispenser.
Banking is a simple business, although the bankers make it look difficult. Banks take money in and then they reward the people who deposit the money; they lend money out and they charge people. A transaction system sits in the middle. To make banking work, they just need to get the two sides of the equation to work.
Why did bank branches develop in the way that they did? The answer is that, typically, people deposited money in the rural branches; in the city branches, the banks lent the money out. That was the traditional banking model—in particular, for the Trustee Savings Bank—in which the banks funded the lending from their depositors. That was a safe model for banking. One of the contributing factors to the bank crash in 2008 was that banks had increasingly gone to the wholesale markets to get money and that they had moved away from keeping the two sides of banking in balance. That didnae help.
In my previous constituency—before the boundaries were changed in 2011—the Clydesdale Bank announced that it was going to shut the branch in New Deer. That community of some 600 people was outraged by the announcement. Those people got together and bought the bank branch. They then persuaded the Royal Bank of Scotland to move in and run the bank branch. It is still there today in the face of all the closures. That was largely down to a dear and now departed colleague, Councillor Norma Thomson; she was one of a range of people in the community who were involved. My point is that there is potential scope for community action and making banks responsive to the communities in which they operate.
A particular example of the risk that banks take in disconnecting themselves from communities comes from South Africa in the early 1990s. In the townships of Soweto, Khayelitsha and elsewhere, people who had informally built their houses wanted to regularise their position and engage in the formal banking system. The traditional banks would have nothing to do with those people, because of their situation. Subsequently, the people set up their own banks and deserted the traditional banks. That is what could happen to the traditional banks here—Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Today, the population of Soweto is 1.27 million people; therefore, it is not a trivial matter that those people deserted the traditional banks and took their banking fates into their own hands. The same sort of thing could happen in Scotland. Those so-called commercial decisions can ultimately be to the commercial disinterest of the organisations that are devastating so many communities—particularly those that are most affected by the closure of banks, because they are the communities that already have least in our society.
I welcome the chance to speak in tonight’s members’ business debate and I thank Sandra White for securing it.
Bank of Scotland branch closures in the north-east region have—and will continue to have—consequences for many of my constituents; in particular, they affect both Dundee and Kirriemuir, with branches closing in both places.
For clarity, I am a customer of Bank of Scotland and also of the Lloyds Banking Group, which owns Bank of Scotland.
The rate of bank branch closures has been steadily increasing for the past few years. The number of bank branches in Scotland fell by a third between 2010 and 2017, with five banks closing 488 branches between them. Bank of Scotland has shut 87 branches since 2010, going from 293 to 206, which is a 30 per cent decrease. Robin Bulloch, from Bank of Scotland, told members that the 30 per cent reduction in the number of branches was a “measured and gradual approach”, taking into account the changing habits of customers, with people shifting to online banking services.
However, the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee found that closures had left communities and local businesses feeling “abandoned”. In March, the committee opened an inquiry into bank branch closures with the aim of gathering evidence on the effect on local businesses, customers and the economy. On closer questioning of the five banks—Bank of Scotland, RBS, Clydesdale Bank, TSB and Santander—it emerged that none of the banks had held a formal consultation process with local people before deciding to close a branch. Many members have referred to that.
The closure of Bank of Scotland’s flagship city branch on the Nethergate in Dundee is a blow to customers and staff alike. The branch will close at some point between February and June next year. That is yet more bad news for the city. Last year, more than 250 jobs were axed at the Bank of Scotland group’s call centre in the same West Marketgait building after it was closed. Following that closure, some staff were offered voluntary redundancies, while others were offered the chance to transfer to the bank’s Dunfermline call centre, which, of course, is more than 50 miles away. Current customers of the branch that is set for closure in 2019 will at least have their accounts re-aligned to Bank of Scotland’s Fairmuir branch on Clepington Road, which is 2 miles away.
Bank of Scotland bosses have blamed the latest decision on the changing ways in which customers choose to bank, claiming that 79 per cent of Dundee city’s personal customers predominantly use telephone or online banking, or alternative branches. A Bank of Scotland spokesperson said:
“We have made the difficult decision to close the Bank of Scotland Dundee City branch in February 2019 due to the changing ways customers choose to bank with us ... customers can continue to access their banking locally by visiting the nearby Post Office, which is less than half a mile from the branch.”
However, while many people are switching to online banking, there are concerns among many communities—particularly the vulnerable, elderly and disabled—about how the closures will affect them. According to Age Scotland, 37 per cent of people over the age of 60 in Scotland do not use the internet, which is equivalent to the size of Edinburgh’s population. My colleague Gordon Lindhurst MSP has said that members of the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee and the Scottish Parliament were
“in no doubt that the loss of branches has had a negative impact on communities and businesses across Scotland.”
Kirriemuir in the north-east region will have no physical Bank of Scotland branch after the bank announced that it is to close next year. The town has a population of around 6,500 to 7,000 who will be left without a bank. That not only deprives residents of a service but affects shopkeepers and business owners who are already under normal commercial pressures. The nearest bank for those living up Glen Isla will probably be Blairgowrie, while others will have to travel to Forfar for their closest Bank of Scotland branch.
A 2017 report by UK Finance found that 71 per cent of adults used online banking in 2017, amounting to 38 million people. Furthermore, debit and credit cards overtook cash and coins as the most commonly used method of payment in the UK last year. Many people feel as though they have been abandoned by the banks following the closures, and that the alternatives offered do not meet their needs. It is vital that people have access to cash and face-to-face banking services. As the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee concluded, the banks must engage properly with people and businesses on their needs before deciding to close branches in the future.
As we can all see across our constituencies that have been affected by bank branch closures, it is not just the customers who suffer. Jobs, businesses and the high street are also impacted. Job losses and empty buildings on what were once busy shopping streets are proof that there have been and will continue to be many negative impacts of branch closures.
I, too, thank Sandra White for lodging the motion. It is sad that she had to do it, because it has been only two months since the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee brought branch closures to the chamber. Here we are again, debating the same subject, which is very disappointing.
My views on the subject are on the record because—as Sandra White said—I lodged a motion on it for a members’ debate a year ago. It is a bit like a broken record: the same concerns and worries are being raised time and again with no sense that the issues are being responded to.
Sandra White gave a long list of areas in her constituency that no longer have a branch presence. I started scribbling down the names of those places, but there were so many that I did not get very far. That tells the story of the number of communities whose residents are expected to travel to do their banking.
For some people, that might be part and parcel of their daily activities, but as members have mentioned, there are elderly and frail customers who, frankly, cannot travel the distance. People who run small businesses cannot take time off work daily to visit a branch during work hours. In my rural area, the distances are so considerable that such journeys are extremely challenging. It is not just a case of popping down to the nearest branch; it takes a considerable chunk of the day to get there.
The question, therefore, is whether the banks are serving communities, frail and elderly customers and small businesses. Judging by this evening’s debate, I would say that the answer is a resounding no.
We try to quantify the issue by quoting figures from Which? or YouGov, but the impact on individuals who depend on being able to visit their local branch is enormous. Graeme Dey mentioned the evidence from Angus, and Clare Haughey talked about the situation in her constituency and the lack of privacy in some alternatives—for example, post offices. Jamie Halcro Johnston referred to the removal of the ATMs from Keith and Lossiemouth and the continuing dependence that we all have on cash.
In September’s debate, I promised to write to Link and the Payment Systems Regulator to seek assurances that no ATM in a vulnerable community would close until a new operator had been found, and that communities would not be left without free access to cash. Access to cash and the ability to deposit cash remain critical, especially for small businesses and rural communities. It is clear that there will continue to be a long-term need for access to cash banking services in Scotland. I wrote to the chief executive of Link, and I am pleased to say that he responded. I intend to meet him to discuss Link’s support for, and commitment to, Scotland.
Richard Lochhead talked about the closures in rural Scotland and mentioned that 40 per cent of the high street banks in his constituency had closed in the past eight years. He also referred to the importance of the last branch standing, as it were, in such communities, and the need for extra safeguards. I whole-heartedly support that call.
George Adam talked about the older people who are left to bear the brunt of banks’ decisions to close branches. At the end of the day, banks rely on our custom. The issue of customers voting with their feet when it comes to supporting local banks is critical.
Monica Lennon made the important point that although we might look in isolation at the impact of branch closures on our communities or constituencies, such closures have had a cumulative impact over the past few years. Of small businesses, 68 per cent say that a local branch is still important. Stewart Stevenson talked about the adverse impact on the people who are most dependent on the branches.
Scotland has fared disproportionately badly, with a reported 367 branches having been closed. Recent figures from Which? show that the UK has lost almost two thirds of its bank-branch network in the past 30 years, which has left a fifth of households more than 3km from their nearest current-account provider.
As the minister who is responsible for the digital economy, I recognise that many customers are choosing to bank in different ways, but digital should never be a means of excluding customers, especially those who are most dependent on the physical presence of a bank.
The issue of alternative ways of banking in rural areas is one that I had to look into as part of my community safety role. The ability to use post offices for banking lies in the hands of the British Bankers Association, which has 28 members, one of which is the Allied Irish Bank, which provides the Post Office’s banking.
It is quite clear that there is an opportunity to resolve the issue and to give the post offices in our rural areas maximum banking facilities. Has the minister ever discussed with the British Bankers Association whether the Post Office could be approved for full banking facilities? I understand that that is possible and lies in the hands of that association. The minister might have to address the question to Westminster, which I implore her to do, because that would solve a lot of problems. I have met people on the islands and in other rural areas who said that there is no problem in doing that.
I thank Maurice Corry for his fair question. As he quite rightly said, the UK Government retains legislative and regulatory responsibility for banking. We have raised the issue of closures directly with the UK Government in a number of ways in trying to mitigate the impact of closures, and we have called for access to essential banking services to be maintained. I will take Maurice Corry’s specific point away with me.
Earlier this year, the Scottish Government convened a round-table discussion with the main Scottish banks on branch closures and provision of banking services. We have now established a banking and economy group as a sub-group of the Financial Services Advisory Board. The sub-group is co-chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work and Scottish Financial Enterprise. Through it, we will continue to engage with the banks on the various issues that have been raised in the debate.
Banking is changing due to the digital economy, as the banks tell us, but things are also changing with people’s benefits now being paid into banks, which is a huge problem. Monica Lennon mentioned the distance that people have to walk to get to a bank, and that some people cannot afford the bus fare. Will the minister raise that issue with the sub-group?
I was going to close by assuring Sandra White that I would raise the specific concerns of her constituents directly with the Bank of Scotland. The point that she just made is valid. I can quote statistics that show the general impact of closures, but for people who are dependent on the presence of a physical branch to access cash and who depend on being able to pay in money there, to receive benefits such as universal credit or to do other things, their whole lives are being impacted on. I happily give the assurance that I will raise directly with the banks the concerns of Sandra White’s constituents and the more general social impacts of branch closures, because that impact cannot go unnoticed.
Just today, I spoke to a number of individuals, including representatives from Age UK, about how we might increase digital participation among the older generation, and I was told that 37 per cent of individuals over the age of 60 do not use the internet. If they are not online, that means that they are entirely excluded from locally accessible free-to-use banking services, which is a massive problem.
While recognising that the regulatory and legislative frameworks are not the Scottish Government’s, I commit to continuing to raise such issues directly with the banks and the UK Government to try to get banks to realise the social impact—not just the commercial impact—of their decisions. The banks are accountable to their customers, who will vote with their feet if their concerns and interests are not taken into account.
Meeting closed at 17:53.