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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.