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.