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[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair] — Rural Bank Closures

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 21st February 2012.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, that the sitting be now adjourned.—( Miss Chloe Smith . )

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire 9:30 am, 21st February 2012

It is a great pleasure to bring this important matter to the attention of the Chamber, and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. About a year ago, I secured a Westminster Hall debate on a similar matter. Another Treasury Minister responded to that debate, but it is a great pleasure that this Minister is present today to respond to my remarks.

I have secured the debate to reiterate my concerns about the closure of bank branches in rural areas. Although 20% of the population live in rural areas, it has never been more difficult for them to access money and financial services. As hon. Members may recall, I raised this issue nearly a year ago following the closure of Barclays bank in Rhayader in my constituency. That town of nearly 2,000 people was left with a single branch of HSBC bank that ran a reduced service just three days a week. Such a situation made it increasingly difficult for local people and businesses to access their money, and meant that they had either to change their account to HSBC, or travel 14 miles to Builth Wells and the nearest Barclays bank.

Sadly, Brecon and Radnorshire now has a new case study. On 9 March this year—unless the bank has a Damascene conversion as a result of this debate—the branch of HSBC in Presteigne will close. That will leave a community of nearly 2,500 people with just one branch of Lloyds TSB that is open only on Wednesday and Friday and between the limited hours of 9.30 am to 3 pm—a mere 11 hours per week. Furthermore, the branch has no cash machine, and I will return to that point. News of the branch closure met with a huge response from the people of Presteigne, who managed to collect more than 500 signatures in a petition against it. They see the closure as a desperate shame; one resident told me that she has seldom seen the bank empty, and that there is usually a queue.

Let me describe Presteigne in a few words. The editor of Country Life magazine, Clive Aslet, considers it to be one of Britain’s top 10 towns in which to live. It is an active, transition town that engages with environmental issues to an extent rarely seen in other places. It is heading towards a strategy of zero waste; a large allotment area has just opened and proved popular. The voluntary East Radnor day centre brings in elderly people from the countryside to share friendship and a meal together, as well as providing other services. Presteigne’s music festival is internationally renowned and premiers many musical compositions.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

The hon. Gentleman is describing Presteigne, which sounds almost as beautiful and wonderful as north Harrow in my constituency. That area has also lost its last bank branch, which is impacting on businesses. Does he think that it is incumbent on the Government, perhaps through the Minister, to convene a summit of the big banks and demand that where a bank branch is the last in a community, banks must respect the need of that community for it to remain open? To help the Government achieve that objective, does the hon. Gentleman think that it is worth considering a British version of the Community Reinvestment Act, which forces banks to disclose where they lend and to demonstrate that they are performing well in order to maintain their banking licences?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I believe that the Government have a role to play, and such a summit may be the way forward. We could also support trials of community banks in which a number of different banks come together to provide banking facilities, thereby cutting costs for individual banks but maintaining a facility for the community.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

Should we not be a little careful about taking this issue out on the banks that are still in rural areas? We should be going after those banks that were first or second to leave an area, not those that have stuck it for as long as they have.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the responsibility lies with all the banks. They have got to come together a find a way of addressing the problem.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

Should the Government be looking at closures over the past 10 years, and at which banks have closed branches and which have not? They could then force banks to get together and create a common policy for bank closure programmes in rural areas. Each bank would take part of the burden so that it would not be left to just one bank.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

There is a theme running through the interventions that I have taken so far. The problem is a responsibility for all the major banks, rather than for a specific bank in a particular town or community, or even in Harrow. Banks should come together and solve the problem.

Presteigne is not only a sleepy country town; it contains a number of innovative businesses such as Mangar International, which manufactures, designs and supplies rehabilitation and assisted living equipment of a sort not found anywhere else in the world. Teledyne Labtech manufactures microwave circuits, and there are a number of other businesses. We were lucky to have attracted those businesses through the Development Board for Rural Wales, and a number of manufacturing facilities sprang up in Presteigne of which we are proud and wish to hold on to. I cannot, however, see us being able to attract that type of development if there is no bank in Presteigne—it is unlikely that businesses will be attracted to areas where banking is not available.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate; he has made some pertinent points. Last month I had a letter from my bank, HSBC in Y Tymbl. It is closing, so perhaps I should declare an interest.

This issue affects valley communities, as well as rural areas. What thought has the hon. Gentleman given to alternative banking models such as credit unions? In Ireland and the USA, for example, those are mainstream institutions, rather than being banking for the poor as they are in Wales at the moment. They also perform an important economic function by lending to small businesses. Could that be part of the solution?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

The hon. Gentleman anticipates a theme that I intended to expand later in my remarks. I value the work done by credit unions, but in the area of Wales with which I am familiar, they do not seem to enlarge and extend their capacity to provide facilities for businesses, or even mortgages, but work only at microfinancial level. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and in these extreme circumstances it may be that the mutual model will once again establish itself and become more important in our communities, which I would welcome.

The Presteigne chamber of commerce has a very active chair, Rosamund Black. She fears that the closure of HSBC will cause extreme inconvenience and hardship and seriously damage the structure of the town. She said to me that people use the bank for more than simple financial transactions; the staff provide a vital service in offering advice and helping to solve the banking queries of many residents, particularly the elderly, whom they help with bill payments and other financial transactions.

However, despite the efforts of the community—I pay particular tribute to the mayor of Presteigne, John Kendall, to the Assembly Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, Kirsty Williams, and to the chair of the chamber of commerce—they appear to have been unsuccessful in persuading HSBC to maintain the bank. Indeed, that closure will follow other closures.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. The HSBC branch in Kirton in Lindsey, in my constituency, announced recently that it was closing. The situation mirrors exactly what the hon. Gentleman is describing in terms of the role of the bank in the community. It is one of the key pillars of the community. Taking the bank away unsettles the whole community infrastructure in the way he describes, and that is not driven by customer preference. It is driven by the mission of the bank. In the case of the Kirton in Lindsey bank, it means that constituents will have to travel 9 miles to the nearest banking facility, so this is clearly an issue that needs addressing. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on airing it today.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, because public transport in rural areas is difficult at the best of times. Requiring people to travel distances of 9 miles or, in an example from my constituency, 14 miles makes it very difficult for people to obtain the advice and support that they need in making financial decisions. There have also been a number of closures by HSBC in Wales. The closures in Llandysul, in Ceredigion, and in Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Powys, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for

Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), have been among six closures in Wales since September. I think that there has been a total of 17 closures across Wales by HSBC since 2009, although I should add that not all of those have been in rural areas.

However, this debate has not been called to highlight cases in my constituency or to single out HSBC. A recent report from the Campaign for Community Banking Services produced a breakdown by region and country of the number of communities dependent on one or two banks, together with a report on the situation for individual banks. The latter revealed the halving of HSBC’s share of one-bank communities in England and Wales to 10% as it continues significantly to reduce its network coverage. Perhaps the case of Presteigne and other closures explain why there is no mention of HSBC’s popular slogan, “The world’s local bank”, in its January 2012 television advertising campaign.

Figures from last year show that since 1990, 44% of all banks, including converted building societies, have been closed. That equates to 7,555 fewer retail banking branches nationwide. That has left the UK with only 190 bank and building society branches per million inhabitants, which is very poor in comparison with the 940 branches per million inhabitants in Spain, 560 per million in Italy and 470 per million in Germany. There is a better geographical spread throughout those countries and they have retained far more locally owned branches. Granted, they generally make modest charges for operating personal as well as business accounts, but at least they have the face-to-face services that so many people still want.

The report of the Independent Commission on Banking, the recommendations of which the Government have pledged to implement in full, stresses the need for a challenger bank and increased competition in high street banking. The German model, for example, provides for excellent competition and a much more community-focused approach. Lowering the barriers to entry and facilitating greater competition could allow for banks specialising in lending to small and medium-sized enterprises, as the Federation of Small Businesses has suggested, for banks that have a more local or community focus or perhaps even for banks that specialise in providing facilities for groups that are normally hard to reach, such as rural communities.

2011 showed no sign of a slowdown in the number of closures. A Campaign for Community Banking Services report that came out earlier this month showed that the number of rural communities with only two banks remaining is 446.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has been a consistent campaigner on this issue. He is setting out how, since he brought the issue to this Chamber in March 2011, the level of bank closures has continued apace. Is he aware of any improvements on the ground as a result of Government intervention—Government policies—since March 2011, or is the lack of any such improvements the reason for his bringing the issue to the Chamber again?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I think that I have made it clear that although I believe that the Government can take a degree of initiative in this field, it is really the responsibility of individual banks or banks as a whole to ensure that they are able to service these vulnerable communities, because they owe a debt of loyalty to them.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again. I do not have the exact phrase with me, but does he recall the banker who said, 18 months into the recession, that the time for remorse is over? That banker misjudged the mood of the nation then and, indeed, now. Relying purely on the good will of bankers when that is the feeling from them—the time for remorse is over—is not likely to bring about the change that most of us in this Chamber want.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

In the long run, it is in the banks’ interest to ensure that they provide a comprehensive level of service to the communities that they wish to serve and services that are more accessible and more convenient. I think that it is probably the role of the Government to sit down with the bankers, as was suggested by Mr Thomas, and set out what should be required of banks. Not all the banks were bailed out with public money as a result of the banking collapse, but all banks have benefited from Government action—quantitative easing, for instance—and just about all banks are dependent or have depended on measures that the Government have brought forward. It is time to sit down and see what can be achieved to help these communities.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall today. My constituency of Strangford has had two bank closures: the Ulster bank in Portaferry and the Northern bank in Balloo have closed. Two campaigns were fought, but not won. We did, however, win the campaign to save the Northern bank in Kircubbin, with community support. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the impact of closures on elderly people is horrendous? If there are not banks close at hand, they may carry cash around with them, and many of us will be aware of a large number of people who have been robbed as a result. Banks therefore have a responsibility to elderly people and to rural communities. Perhaps the Government could work together with the banks on that. Perhaps, somewhere along the way, banks need to carry a loss leader, covering their losses in such areas through profits in other areas.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Yes, I believe that there may be a role there. There is the American model of a shared bank, whereby one facility houses different banks. They share the costs and maintain a presence in the community. That may be a way forward; the Government could help with, or initiate, a pilot scheme of that type. I had intended to suggest that later.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supporting the idea of holding a summit with the banks to discuss branch closures. Does he not think that having such a summit is all the more important given that the Government’s attitude to bank branch closures has arguably become more depressing since his previous debate last March? I ask that because the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has direct responsibility for this issue, has said:

“The Government do not intervene in…decisions as to whether, and where, banks maintain branches.”—[Hansard, 26 January 2012; Vol. 539, c. 329W.]

In a recent debate, he also suggested that if the Government intervened to stop bank branch closures, banks would continue to face high costs. Clearly, a more sophisticated Minister is answering this debate, and one hopes that she will have the courage to take a slightly different view. The answers to our questions surely underline the need for a summit so that banks do not think that the Government condone further bank branch closures.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. One reason why I called for the debate is that I am not prepared to allow the closures to go unnoticed. By bringing the issue to the attention of the Government and right hon. and hon. Members, I intend to bring it to the attention of the big four banks, and a number of other banks. These large organisations have a social duty to which they should attend, but it would be useful if the Government could kick things off with an initiative and call for a summit, as the hon. Gentleman said.

When a bank has the last branch in town, it often makes a pledge of some sort to keep it open, but those pledges are often difficult to define; that creates a lot of uncertainty, which can be fuelled by such comments as those made last year by the British Bankers Association. It said:

“Branches will remain open if they are being used. But if the number of customers…coming into the branch falls, then the bank—like any other retail outlet—will need to look carefully at whether it is…viable to keep it open.”

Well, the bank in Presteigne was being used, but a different target was imposed on it, relating to the selling of financial products such as mortgages, pensions and loans. The population of Presteigne is rather stable; it may have made use of those products in the past, but it still expected services from the bank. However, the bank has decided to withdraw from the community.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is it not true that banks are encouraging—indeed, almost forcing—customers to go down the route of internet and telephone banking, often against customers’ wishes? That is having an impact on the footfall in branches such as those that the hon. Gentleman describes. These changes are being driven by the determinations of producers, rather than customers, which is a great shame.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who raises an important point. Information provided to me indicates that two thirds of customers between the ages of 25 and 45 will use internet banking facilities, while only a third of people over 65 have the aptitude to take advantage of such opportunities.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

That is one issue, but does my hon. Friend agree that another is whether people have the broadband access in the first place to enable to make use of these things?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

That is another point, and my hon. Friend makes it very powerfully. Perhaps the Minister would like to address that problem, too.

I appreciate the coalition Government’s commitment to keeping open post offices, which provide important outlets for financial products, but banks are still the preferred option for many people, particularly when they need advice and support in difficult times.

I have gone on a bit longer than I anticipated, and I am grateful for hon. Members’ interventions. The Government have a role to play. In the American model of a shared banking outlet, many major banks come together to ensure that their facilities can be provided at one point. The Government could have a role in ensuring that pilots exploiting that approach are set up with their backing. The town of Presteigne would certainly be willing and anxious to take part in such a pilot.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen 9:55 am, 21st February 2012

I congratulate Roger Williams on bringing this issue to the attention of the House. He has served his constituency with great sincerity for many years. When I was Welsh Secretary, he and I visited many parts of it, and I know he has raised this issue because he feels deeply about it, particularly as far as Presteigne is concerned.

I want to talk about another bank closure. Again, it involves HSBC, but this time it is in my constituency—in Blaenavon, in my valley. Blaenavon, a Welsh mining valley, has the characteristics of a rural area, in the sense that it is geographically isolated, its population is about 5,000 or 6,000, and it is part of the Brecon Beacons national park. It now has only one bank, HSBC, because the others have closed.

The decision to close the bank has caused enormous difficulty and distress among the people of Blaenavon. The town council and I have met the Assembly MemberLynne Neagle—and bank officials. Hundreds of people attended a public meeting; it is very unusual these days for people to turn up to a public meeting to support banks, but these people did. There has also been a large petition. It therefore means a great deal to the people of Blaenavon that the bank is about to close.

The hon. Gentleman referred to HSBC as the world’s local bank; I was recently attracted by a newspaper headline, “HSBC banks on going deeper into rural areas”, until I discovered that the newspaper concerned was the Shanghai Daily. The article, which was from 2009, said:

“HSBC said…it has opened two more rural banks in China as it seeks to penetrate deeper into the rural financing industry in the country.”

It also said the bank

“is committed to bringing our global rural finance expertise into China’s countryside to help develop a sustainable model of finance and to contribute to the local economy”.

So HSBC is opening banks in China and closing them in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.

I understand the point made by Simon Hart, who said that it is perhaps hard to castigate the last bank remaining in a town. Nevertheless, when it has gone, the effect on local communities can be quite devastating because those communities often have lots of older people. In addition, local industry and small and medium-sized businesses rely on the banks. There is also the fact that communities are isolated and that many older people do not have their own transport. In Blaenavon’s case, there is the added issue that the town is a world heritage site, with lots of tourists from across the world coming to visit, but there is no longer a bank. The issue is therefore of great concern.

Today’s debate must concentrate not only on saying that the banks must be much more responsible in looking after rural areas, but on what can be done. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made some suggestions, as have my hon. Friends. I want to make one or two points, which I hope the Minister and my hon. Friend Toby Perkins, who speaks for the Opposition, will refer to when they wind up.

Clearly, the most important point is that if the bank goes, a cash point should remain, because it is hugely difficult to obtain money in a small town if the cash point disappears. If possible, there should also be some form of deposit facility so that people can deposit their money in a machine.

The issue of internet and telephone banking is also important. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, however, the number of people over 65 who attempt to use such facilities is small. Clearly, there is a job of work to be done by the banks in trying, when they close, to train or teach their customers to use the telephone and internet banking facilities that many other people use. I pressed HSBC to hold seminars in Blaenavon to show people that.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

I am sorry to intervene so often. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we might want cash points that do not charge people to take their own money out—in other words, not LINK cash points, which cost about £2.50 every time someone sticks their card in?

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen

Indeed. That is very important; particularly for older people, being charged to take out money is an extra burden.

The Post Office basic bank accounts are useful. People may be able to carry out their transactions through the post office. Credit unions, which were raised earlier, are also important. However, the sharing of facilities between banks needs to be explored. Another intriguing issue is mobile banking. In Ogmore Vale in south Wales, for example, HSBC and, I think, the Royal Bank of Scotland together initiated a mobile banking scheme for the area. It is like a mobile library, and it goes around villages and towns, providing facilities and the opportunity to use the banks.

It strikes me that the Government—both the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Government—need to be able to come up with imaginative ideas. When it is known that the last bank in a town in a rural area is going to disappear, there should be some sort of action plan. Either the local authority or the Welsh or United Kingdom Government should be able to consider the alternatives for the town, and the possibilities that I have outlined. Often people’s fear is the worst thing. They need reassurance that some sort of facility can be provided in the community, through the exercise of more imagination.

My hon. Friend Mr Thomas referred to a summit. That is an important suggestion; the representatives of banks and Government could sit round a table and perhaps come up with ideas for action plans for towns and large villages that are losing their banking facilities.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire once more on raising the issue, which is hugely important and affects all our constituents, crossing the party political boundaries of the House of Commons. I hope that the Minister will come up with ideas to alleviate the problems of our communities.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire 10:02 am, 21st February 2012

I have been a Member of the House for almost two years now, Mr Brady, and you have chaired a huge proportion of the proceedings in which I have taken part. It has always been a pleasure.

I, too, congratulate Roger Williams on securing today’s debate. He represents a neighbouring constituency to mine, and they are two of the most rural in Britain. One reason I did not prepare a speech for today was that I knew that I would only be repetitive. I could have filched the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and said pretty much the same, because our experiences are so similar. However, I want briefly to associate myself with the issue that he has raised, and with his remarks. All that I need to change is his references to Presteigne—although I represented it for eight years as a regional member in the National Assembly for Wales, so I know the town well. The point is that very few changes would need to be made in the speech to make it apply to my constituency and, I am sure, rural constituencies across Britain.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and I have worked together for many years on the issues in question, on the Development Board for Rural Wales, and in other contexts. Nearly all that work would come under the general heading of the defence and promotion of rural services. The way in which society has moved in the past half century has put enormous pressure on rural services, and that is a huge threat. Protecting and retaining those services has been incredibly difficult, and we shall not be able to retain and protect them all. However, that work has been a big part of my life, and of the hon. Gentleman’s life.

One of the reasons I have become so engaged with the issue in question is that I decided as a young man that I enjoyed living in the middle of Montgomeryshire and would never live anywhere else. I deeply love the place. All my fellow students from Llanfair Caereinion high school left the area to find work—we did not have any—and even at a young age I became very engaged in seeking to retain and develop our economy, as the key to providing employment that would encourage people to stay. There has been huge pressure across rural services, and the banks issue must be considered within that whole bracket. Rural schools close, because as families have fewer children there is pressure on them, and many village schools are closing. That is still happening and will continue; but what we do will affect the rate of closure. The same is happening with hospital services. Increased specialisation in skills and treatments means it is not possible to retain all rural hospitals. Some of them are closing, and, even more importantly, some of the services available in them are moving away. Transport is another serious issue, because of the acquisition of cars. There is not the same level of rural public transport that there used to be. I do not mean any criticism of the Welsh Government, but the grant for rural transport has been substantially reduced this year. The retention of transport links is strongly connected to the retention of banks; significant reductions are being made, with the result that services will be reduced.

Financial services are a key part of life today, whether those are provided by banks, building societies or post offices. People in rural areas, and perhaps in particular the elderly and the most vulnerable, who are not familiar with the internet or sometimes do not have access to it—because clearly broadband is not as effective in rural areas as it is in the areas now becoming used to it—do not have access to financial services. Yet the bank is crucial. When the last bank closes that is a death knell in the village. We must do all we can to retain those services where it is possible.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument about local rural services. Shops are also suffering, because if cash points in villages are lost and people cannot get access to the cash, they do not spend it locally. That has an impact on local shops and on tourism in rural areas.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

That is right. As we reduce spending power, every service goes. Each one affects the others.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I just want to highlight what has happened in Aldeburgh, where HSBC pulled out—its only communication with the wider community was a poster in the window. Retailers responded by offering cashback. Does my hon. Friend agree that the subject in question is a very suitable one for the Office of Fair Trading to look into? After its study of oil supplies it is examining other issues affecting rural communities; access to financial services could be its next topic.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

I thank my hon. Friend for that sensible suggestion. There have, indeed, been other suggestions from hon. Members, including one about a summit, which also seems sensible to me. I am sure that more will be made, and I look forward to the Ministers’s response to the debate, to find out where the Government are going with the issue. There is a responsibility on the Government to serve everyone in this country. They have, rightly, worked closely with business and banks to ensure that money is available to business, for the creation of employment. That is currently a huge Government policy issue.

Access to services for our rural areas is also a huge issue. It is not a new issue; it has been there all of my life. The coalition Government have taken a serious and responsible approach to post offices. We need the same discussion and pressure on our banks. If a summit is the answer, that is the way we should go.

The responsibility rests with the banks. The current view of banks is very much influenced by the debate about bonuses and very high salaries. There is a view among the poorest in our society that there is a lot of money available in banks—I know that that is not necessarily the case—so that when they see their banks being closed or their banking hours being reduced for a relatively small saving, as is happening in Llanidloes and Montgomery, they cannot understand it. The banks are disengaged from a major section of the community. The Government must ensure that the banks understand that they have a responsibility not just to the bottom line but to deliver services.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:11 am, 21st February 2012

I want to carry on where Glyn Davies left off and talk about the public reputation of banks in the UK—in fact in the whole world. Banks today are not in a good place. Earlier, I mentioned the quote, “The time for remorse is now over”. The banker who said that totally misjudged the mood of the nation. Having been through the expenses scandal, we as MPs recognise this situation. We know that we have to build bridges with the public, and the banks and the media must do the same. Of all three sectors, the banks are showing the least remorse and seem less anxious to make good their reputation with the public. They must look again at the balance between profit and social responsibility. Banks are about profit, but as they make that profit from people and from communities, they bear certain responsibilities, which we have not witnessed their fulfilling since the banking crisis. They have the opportunity to learn their lesson and to make amends with local communities, especially in rural areas. It sticks in people’s guts when they hear about billions of pounds being set aside for bonuses while branches are being closed. Such action does not sit well with the British public. Banks should perhaps take some of those bonuses and reinvest them in rural and poor communities across the UK.

The local presence of a bank in a high street or a village is very important. It is about making a commitment to a community. In the past—I will not go too far back—local bank managers were trusted pillars of the community. They were down at the golf club, picking up the local knowledge. They knew who was a sound investment and who was not, so when they were sat across from someone who wanted money, they were able to give the appropriate advice. That cannot be done by proxy from a city 20 or 30 miles away, or from a town 10 or 15 miles away. Understanding the vibes of an area and keeping a finger on its pulse needs to be done in the community; local knowledge and local presence are very important and lead to sound lending. Banks were also involved in the wider community; they were in the business groups and the town centre forums, using their expertise and knowledge to help local people.

There has been a lot of bank kicking today; I have done it a bit myself, but let me mention some examples of good social responsibility that I have come across over the years. About 10 years ago, I wrote to all the banks in my constituency and said, “What is your corporate responsibility agenda? What do you give back to the community?” I had an excellent response from Barclays’ Wendy O’Raheilly, who was based in Cardiff. She said that she would drive 200 miles there and 200 miles back to tell me about it. She told me that at that time, Barclays was the second biggest corporate donor in the country, donating some £52 million. Sue Jones, Barclays’ local person based in Rhyl, attends every Rhyl in Bloom meeting. She bring 70 Barclays personnel from all over the UK to help out in community initiatives. There are clearly some good banks. HSBC has received a kicking here today, but its local person, James Smith, attends all our town centre forum meetings. I wrote to the HSBC chief executive for the whole of Europe, Brian Robertson, to tell him what a great employee he had. He then got on the phone to James Smith, saying how pleased he was to receive such a letter. Some banks take their social responsibility seriously; other banks need to do more. The Britannia building society is now getting active in my local community in Rhyl.

In the interests of transparency, the banks need to advertise what they are doing. They need to tell us the criteria for closing down rural banks. We need to know what is best practice and how we can push the worst practice upwards towards best practice. Some banks inform MPs of their branch closures. Do they inform the town council, the county council or the community council? How far in advance do they do that? Do they produce the criteria for closures so that communities can argue against them, or is it all done and dusted before the dialogue is started?

My hon. Friend Mr Thomas made the excellent suggestion of holding a summit with the banks. I hope that the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Toby Perkins, will hold such a summit and invite rural MPs from across the House. Actually, why keep it to rural MPs? Perhaps all MPs who are experienced in bank closures should be invited.

We need historical perspective: how many branches have been closed by each bank; what percentage are they of the total number and were those branches in rural, urban or poor communities? That will give us a picture and allow us to say to a bank, “Yes, we can hold you up as best example and you, as worst example.” We need a ranking of banks. Which are the banks that have social responsibility and which are the ones that do not? I am not sure whether there is an all-party parliamentary group on banking. If there is, I have been inspired to join it after today’s debate. Perhaps it would have a role to play. Perhaps we should be tabling parliamentary questions on the matter. Are such closures being recorded by Government? Part of this Government want a hands-off approach towards the private sector because they want to let it get on with its business, but these are big issues affecting our communities. Access to finance can help decide whether communities in rural or poor areas flourish or die. I fully back that idea of a summit, and hope that it is taken up by the Minister, the shadow Minister, the all-party parliamentary group and MPs.

What can be done with these closures? We can look at what the Labour Government did with the post offices; we had to close them in some rural communities and it was a painful process. Can the private sector learn from the public sector? In our closure programme, we looked at where a post office was and where the next one was. We studied the radius around the post office under threat. Everything was done mathematically and systematically. Should the banking sector get together and co-operate? They could cut their costs if they said, “We won’t close a bank here if you don’t close a bank there.” Is there synergy to be had among the banks in the banking sector? Is there enough co-operation? I understand that it is difficult because they are all after the same pot; they are all after profit. If they have social responsibility, they should consider more co-operation.

Mobile banks have been mentioned today. We discussed and implemented such a strategy when we closed the post offices. We had post office mobile vans going around the country. Could there be any co-operation between the post office mobile vans and mobile banks? Such a scheme will cost money, but it might be a sound investment for the banks, not only economically but socially, because their reputation would improve.

Is there room and opportunity for the banks to co-operate with the credit unions, which have already been mentioned in this debate? If banks are pulling out of an area, could they co-operate with credit unions—again, giving them a bit of a subsidy—to move into the areas that they are moving out of? Is more co-operation possible with static post offices, rather than just with mobile post offices? Money is being collected and deposited in those post offices. Are there any synergies between the banks and the post office network?

There have been a lot of good suggestions today from Members of all parties; I think that the debate has been consensual and further progress can be made; and I thank Roger Williams for securing this debate, which has been well attended. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman took lots of interventions; he was very generous in doing so, especially with me. And some good has come of the debate.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire 10:20 am, 21st February 2012

Like my hon. Friend Glyn Davies, I had not intended to contribute to this debate, but it has thrown up many useful points and I want to expand on just one of them: the notion of a summit on banking closures. I hope that the Minister might be able to respond favourably in that regard.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the social impact of bank closures in their areas. However, as part of any banking summit, should we not go down the road that my hon. Friend has hinted at and contextualise the issue and consider the impact on rural communities of the closures of pubs, petrol stations—an issue that no one has mentioned so far, but that has a profound effect—post offices, as we have just heard, and schools, alongside the closure of banks and other services? I say that because in the past there was such a thing as the rural advocate. The Minister will be familiar with the rural advocate, whose job was to rural-proof Government decisions so that, where there might be a disproportionate impact on rural areas, that factor would be taken into account. I fully understand that there was a need to reorganise things, if I can put it that way, within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I think was the Department that the rural advocate was responsible to, although they might even have been responsible to No. 10. However, that does not mean that the role that the rural advocate undertook is not as important today as it was in the past.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as I had babbled on for 10 minutes before him. Regarding the loss of those facilities—the pubs, schools, post offices, banks and petrol stations—within rural communities, does he think that there is an onus on those communities to accept more housing and not to lump all future housing developments in urban areas? I represent an urban area and a rural area, and as we look at housing development over the next 10 years, the feeling is that all the houses should go to the urban areas to preserve our rural areas. But each community should expect to have a 10% increase in housing, with social housing, so that there is mixed tenureship, and family housing, so that communities can keep the schools, pubs and post offices open, because people are living in them.

Photo of Simon Hart Simon Hart Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to engage in a debate about affordable housing and rural areas, and I am not sure that the Chairman would forgive us if we were to do so this late in the day. Perhaps we can have that conversation over a cup of tea after the debate, if he does not mind my putting it that way.

In an earlier intervention, I mentioned the irritation that I experience at being charged exorbitant sums to take my own money out of certain cash machines, but there is another element to the availability of cash that I did not refer to: cash-in as opposed to cash-out. Paul Murphy may have mentioned this point already, but rural areas survive—survive a lot, in the case of my constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire—on tourism-related events and tourism-related industries, which often involve people who carry substantial amounts of cash. When there is a fundraising event in a local area, or indeed a busy weekend in general, the need to get any cash that is made into somewhere that is reasonably safe reasonably quickly goes to the heart of the social responsibility that Chris Ruane referred to. We must bear in mind that there is a proper need—not just a desire to be treated differently—to get that money into places where it is safe, as soon as it is possible to do so.

On the topic of a summit, as yet no one has mentioned the requirement for banks in the rural areas that we are talking about to address—again and again—lending. We all know, and indeed we have heard today, that there are very responsible staff and managers of local banks, but they have their hands, feet and everything else bound by central office lending guidelines. To me, it is one thing to debate the availability of banks on the high street for our rural communities, but let us also get those banks lending. I suspect that the guidelines for such lending no longer lie with the bank manager in Narberth, Whitland, St Clears or wherever it might be. I have here an e-mail from NatWest that is about the closure of the NatWest branch at Whitland in my area, but it comes kindly from the Royal Bank of Scotland at 280 Bishopsgate, which I suspect is where most of the decisions are made with regard to rural banking. Therefore, I say to the Minister that if we are to have a banking summit, let us also deal with lending to some of the small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas.

I also want to talk about high street prosperity. We had a debate in the main Chamber the other day about the Portas report, the Government’s warm recognition of its recommendations and how we can regenerate one or two of our ailing high streets as a consequence of the advice that the Government has received from Mary Portas. Of course, within all that discussion, there is a need for a vibrant high street banking facility. Such a facility is one of the vital pieces of the economic jigsaw in our rural market towns, and no jigsaw works if a vital piece is missing. So we cannot accept the Portas report and then say, “But not banking.” We have to accept high street banking as part of that package, and as I have already said, I hope that—as part of the proposed banking summit or even perhaps as part of the Minister’s summing-up of this debate—reference can be made to that issue.

Sharing facilities was mentioned earlier by hon. Members from all parties, and it is an extremely helpful development. Mobile facilities have worked in one or two rural areas, as far as post offices are concerned. Having referred to the e-mail that I received from NatWest, I must say that NatWest has been helpful in our area by

“working closely with the Post Office to make changes to its IT systems to enable customers to use the Post Office branch network”,

as its e-mail sets out. That is a positive development in terms of shared working, which I commend NatWest bank for making.

Finally, my hon. Friend Dr Coffey made the point about a possible investigation into rural bank closures by the Office of Fair Trading. It would be helpful if the Minister leaned in the direction of working with the Welsh Assembly Government—or the Welsh Government, as they now like to be called—with regard to making a proper team effort to address the impositions put upon rural communities as a consequence not only of bank closures but other closures of facilities. Rural communities do not want special treatment, but they want to be able to function on equal terms with the rest of the UK.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:27 am, 21st February 2012

Thank you very much, Mr Brady, for allowing me to speak. Unlike Glyn Davies, I believe that this is the first time that I have had the pleasure of attending a debate that you are chairing, but my excitement is none the less for that. I have obviously not been in the right place before.

This has been a good and important debate, and there have been some really important contributions. I congratulate Roger Williams on securing another Westminster Hall debate on rural bank closures. The issue is just as relevant and urgent—if not more so—than it was when he secured a debate on it back in March 2011.

The importance of this issue is shown in part by the number of different organisations that contacted me in advance of it to express their views on the problems that rural bank closures are causing their membership and their areas of interest. Those organisations include the Forum of Private Business, the Campaign for Community Banking Services, the Post Bank Coalition, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Countryside Alliance. As I say, they all contacted me to express the difficulties that this issue was causing their members. The Countryside

Alliance briefing nicely laid out the fact that access to money and finance in rural areas has never been more acutely limited. It said:

“20 per cent of the population live and work in rural areas and yet only 12 per cent of bank branches and 10 per cent of cash machines are located there.”

What we are seeing is a population shift towards rural communities but at the same time a hollowing-out of services within rural areas. The briefing continues:

“Around 200,000 people living in rural England do not have access to a bank account of any kind. Even before any further bank closures, more than 930,000 households in rural areas live below the Government’s official poverty line and as many as 300,000 people living in the countryside do not have bank accounts.”

There is a broad issue about services in rural communities generally and a specific issue about the role of banking in our society. There is a challenge for the Government in terms of how they can stand up for Britain’s small and medium-sized enterprises. Although those issues are not new, they are becoming more serious, as has been stated in several contributions to the debate. A variety of cogent points were made by Members, to which I will refer.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire laid out the importance of exploring the idea of community banks. I look forward to the Government’s response. The Government must take responsibility for co-ordinating and pressing the banks to deliver their public service responsibilities. He also laid out the potential value that there might be in the role of shared banks, which we want to see explored in a lot more detail. My right hon. Friend Paul Murphy expressed in graphic detail the devastating impact of the closure of the HSBC bank in Blaenavon, which affects small businesses, the elderly and the community. A cash point is needed there, even if the bank disappears. That point was also made by other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire expressed the importance of supporting local businesses and how their presence retains young talent within our rural communities. A difficulty occurs when young people go away to university and do not come back to their own communities, resulting in a hollowing-out of talent in local rural areas. He described how it is often a death knell for village and community life when a bank closes. That is an important point.

My hon. Friend Mr Thomas captured the mood of the debate with his call for a summit of the major banks and for the Government to get a summit together. We have seen the NHS summit this week. Perhaps the next summit will include invitations to the people who do not agree with the Government. Notwithstanding that, his idea was seized upon by other hon. Members as having merit. He spoke about the impact of the last bank closing in north Harrow in his constituency. He said that the summit should call for a commitment by the major banks to stick to the principles of the last bank agreement, so that when we are down to the final bank in a constituency, they stick to the commitment to retain it as a public service.

My hon. Friend Chris Ruane supported the call for a summit. He asked for an analysis of the number of bank closures to ensure that we have important information. It is vital for banks to raise their reputation and standing. They can have an impact on our broader community and economy. We need to sense that we are all in it together and that banks realise and recognise their responsibilities.

Simon Hart also supported the call for a summit. He said that it needs to be expanded and should not just be about rural banking closures. He wants it to hold banks to account for their failure to lend to small businesses, and I would entirely support that. He also made the point that this is not just about the banks that go last, because they are the ones that stayed longest. We should also be looking at the banks that go before. We should recognise that banks have business decisions to make every day, but when they become the last bank in the community, there is also the public service issue. When members of the community can access shared banking services and tolerate only one bank in their village—in the town in the case of Blaenavon—it has a dramatic effect when that last one goes.

Jonathan Edwards talked about the impact on small businesses. My hon. Friend Nic Dakin mentioned the fact that the bank is often a key pillar of the community. That leads me to the broader issue of rural services. Local banks and post offices are the lifeblood of a community in rural areas. They impact on everything, from people’s sense of place and community to the capacity of small businesses to be run there, offering local employment prospects. They impact on tourism in some rural areas. We are seeing an increase in the number of people living in rural communities, yet a retraction in the services actually provided. That then has an impact on the ability of elderly and disabled people to engage in society in the way that we would expect—something that people who have easier access to transport or who live in urban communities take for granted.

The coalition agreement promised a post office bank. I am sorry that the Government have decided to renege on that promise. It was an idea floated by the previous Government. It was in the Labour party manifesto. We thought that it had been taken up by the new Administration when it was mentioned in the coalition agreement. The idea for a post office bank, in which post office facilities were used for some basic financial services, especially in rural areas, has, to the disappointment of many organisations, apparently been ditched.

Alongside the importance of rural services is the issue of what we expect from banks. Banks are both businesses and public services. When the banking crisis struck, the taxpayer provided support in a way that we have not done with numerous other industries. Many other industries, businesses and large firms have been allowed to go to the wall, but the banks were saved by the taxpayer, because we recognised the importance of the banking sector to our communities and, of course, to the business community. We recognised the possible impact on our communities. That role is acknowledged by the banks. It is one of the reasons why the last bank in town commitment is so important.

Evidence from the coalition of community banking services has shown the gradual reduction in rural banking services and the extent to which the number of dual bank communities has reduced, often because banks do not want to be the last bank in town and then come under more pressure than they would if another bank closed. So the suggestion made by the Minister in March 2011 that increased competition in the mainstream banking sector would be a solution is entirely disingenuous. It is an important issue to do with some of the other inadequacies in our banking environment, but once we get to the last bank in town, the decision about keeping it open is often one in which commercial considerations overtake the public service considerations, so the idea that an increase in competition will lead to an increase in the number of banks staying open in such areas is an unlikely one.

Banks are closing because banks have over many years been engaged in a long-term process of centralisation and cost reduction, and small local branches simply do not sell enough financial services products to keep them open. Communities that have invested in a bank, borrowed from a bank and been customers in that bank for many years often find that their loyalty is not returned when the branch is no longer commercially successful. So this is an issue of equality for people on low incomes, and it is an issue about how we support our elderly and disabled people, as well as how we support our small businesses. There is a greater role than ever before for debt advice. The advice sector is hollowing out and centralising in the face of cuts to the voluntary and local government sectors. That could push impoverished people towards payday loans and illegal loan sharks, as well as reducing the access to quality financial advice for elderly and disabled people who are not able to travel 10 or 15 miles to the nearest bank.

There must be a greater role within our banking sector for credit unions and mutuals, and I am interested to know what more the Government can do to promote them. Alongside the failure on rural commitments, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr said, is a failure on access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises. That is recognised right across our business community. One of the biggest single drags on our economic recovery is the failure to make finance accessible to small businesses, owing to the banking sector’s retrenchment and the failure of the Project Merlin agreement, particularly for small businesses. The Government need to do a great deal more on that.

We all recognise that if we are to have a private sector-led recovery, SMEs will play a significant role in delivering growth within our economy. Members will have been as shocked as I was to learn the extent of the current Government’s failure in a YouGov poll yesterday, showing that a quarter of small business owners expect to close within the next two years.

At a time like this, when small businesses are under the cosh more than ever, we must recognise the banking sector’s role in supporting those businesses. Often, such businesses deal in cash and need daily access to bank services. There are clearly security implications for small businesses that cannot cash in their takings daily, as well as efficiency implications. A small business owner who must close early to drive 10 or 15 miles to take their money to the nearest bank will make less profit. At a time when small businesses need all the help that they can get, the Government and the banking sector should be doing a whole lot more. Hon. Members mentioned the importance of the local business relationship between banks and their business customers as well as their individual customers.

I should like to hear the Minister’s comments on the proposal made today for a summit. I should also like to hear what more can be done to take forward the inter-bank agency agreement model, which has been important in enabling businesses to share bank branch services. What does she think of today’s proposal by the Forum of Private Business that banks should share premises?

This debate involves the broad issue of services in rural communities, the specific role of banking in our society and a challenge to the Government to stand up for Britain’s small businesses. We recognise that rural communities exist in a variety of ways, but if they are to be sustainable communities and not just places where people live, services are crucial. That is why this debate is so important. I welcome the contributions made by all Members and look forward to learning more about what the Government will do to address this serious issue.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 10:43 am, 21st February 2012

I hope you will excuse my slightly unorthodox speaking style, Mr Brady, due to a broken foot. I thank Roger Williams and his colleagues, who are now giggling in the back row. I also thank the other Members who have contributed to this important debate. It follows the interesting and useful debate secured last year by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, to which my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary responded. He is in Committee today, considering the Financial Services Bill. I am sure that he will read today’s Hansard with deep interest and mull over the calls for a summit and the suggestions about with whom he should work if he is minded to hold one. I recognise the concerns expressed capably by all hon. Members about the impact of past and planned branch closures by high street banks in their constituencies and about the availability of banking services in rural areas more generally.

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Opposition Whip (Commons)

On the issue of a banking summit, will the Minister consider calling it herself, in co-operation with the shadow Minister, or is it something that she will leave to Back Benchers?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I shall have to leave that to the consideration of my colleague at the Treasury, whose portfolio it more properly is. However, as I said, I am sure that during a slow moment in Committee upstairs, he will read today’s Hansard and take the hon. Gentleman’s views deeply into account.

The Government recognise that people in rural areas experience much the same financial challenges as people living in towns and cities, even Harrow. However, living in a rural area can bring additional challenges apart from the obvious examples of bank closures. Exclusion from financial services can be less visible in rural areas than in urban areas. My hon. Friend Glyn Davies and others have highlighted a range of rural challenges. I have some understanding of them myself, having grown up in the fens in rural Norfolk. My first bank account was in a branch in a market town.

With regard to access to bank accounts, the Government are committed to improving access to financial services, as I shall explain, and in particular to bank accounts. It has been amply demonstrated that having a bank account is an essential aspect of modern life and that being able to access counter services at a branch while interacting face to face with staff is a service valued not only by individuals but by businesses. I have also heard the points made today about its tourism value. However, I must point out that decisions whether and where to maintain specific branches are commercial decisions and, as such, for the financial institutions in question. The Government do not intervene in such decisions, as a matter of principle.

All banking service providers must balance customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when considering their strategy. I note the call by Chris Ruane for banks to balance social responsibility with those factors, but I will say at the outset that the Government have been clear about the need for a change in bonus culture and for banks to contribute to the real economy, support small and medium-sized enterprises throughout the UK and lend to families. The bottom line of today’s debate is that banks have customers, and it is clear that they must treat them fairly in taking decisions about them.

With that in mind, I will set out briefly the regulations that apply. Banks’ and building societies’ treatment of their customers is currently governed by the Financial Services Authority in its “Banking Conduct of Business Sourcebook”, which includes a general requirement for firms to provide a prompt, efficient and fair service to all their customers. The guidance agreed by the industry and the FSA sets out expectations of how banks should live up to that code of conduct and specific guidelines for how banks should behave when considering closing a branch.

The guidance states that if a firm plans to close or move a branch, customers should be notified at least 12 weeks beforehand and told how the firm will continue to provide retail banking services. That includes providing micro-enterprise customers with information on any existing inter-bank agency agreements. A notice should be placed in the branch, and consideration should be given to other local advertising and notification of local councils and community groups. The bank should provide information on alternative facilities offered by the firm in the locality, including its nearest alternative branch and nearest free ATM, as well as other channels through which banking services are provided.

My hon. Friend Simon Hart mentioned free ATMs. I believe that the LINK network, of which, I note, he is perhaps no great fan, runs a phone line that customers can use to propose sites for new free-of-charge cash machines. Perhaps he might encourage his constituents to take that up.

The guidance also requires that customers be notified at least 12 weeks in advance of significant alterations to counter services or opening hours. On the back of those points, first, such arrangements clearly help customers make alternative arrangements to meet their banking needs. Secondly, they enable options to be considered, such as the action plans for which Paul Murphy called. Thirdly, to use an example that we heard today, I am pleased that people in Suffolk, Coastal could respond in that way. When people see a notice in branch buildings, some are clearly able to respond. Fourthly, however, that does not change the end fact that a branch may still be withdrawn.

Let us move on and note what banks offer in addition to their face-to-face services. Several Members have made the point today that banks offer services by telephone and by internet. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire raised the significant issue of broadband, which I am sure is on everyone’s minds. The Government have laid out significant plans to improve and complete broadband for rural areas. I could go into that more, but I suspect that that is a different debate and that you, Mr Brady, will not allow me to speak on it. I reassure Members that the Government understand that point and are acting on it.

It is fair to say that the channels I have talked about are not always appropriate for every customer and every service. As hon. Members have noted, having access to a branch with face-to-face services is particularly important for older people and for small businesses that may require cash facilities to trade. However, the fact is that phone and online channels are increasingly popular, and the provision of such services is expanding and diversifying rapidly, giving customers a range of choices as to how they manage their affairs.

It is important to note that many bank account providers have an arrangement for customers to access their accounts via post office counters, which I am glad that hon. Members have noted throughout today’s debate. I know that Members will welcome the Government’s stance on post offices, notably making clear commitments regarding the future of the network—that there will be no further closure programmes and that we will maintain a network of at least 11,500 branches and ensure that specific access provisions for rural areas are included. I understand that 80% of customers now have the possibility of withdrawing or depositing funds or checking their balance at a post office branch.

Hon. Members raised shared branching, which is where several banking providers pool their services in some way. That is an interesting idea that clearly requires a high degree of commercial collaboration. I return to my point that the best people to judge that are the banks themselves, and I would certainly encourage them to consider that idea and also mobile banking, which was also raised in today’s debate.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I can understand why the Minister points out that the Government should not micro-manage banks, but surely, the piloting of an innovative proposal such as shared banking is something that the Government could actively introduce?

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I am afraid that that would not be something that the Government could introduce, as the Government do not run banks. Regarding the banks in which the Government are the majority shareholder, they are run at arm’s length, as all hon. Members know, but I hope that my words will serve as a small measure of encouragement. It is a positive idea that could and should be looked at by banks themselves.

Regarding what the Government are doing to promote access to financial services, we are taking a number of important actions to help consumers access the services that they need. We are strongly committed to promoting a diverse financial services sector that serves the needs of the wider economy, which is the one of themes of today’s debate.

To start with, we need to encourage access to savings products. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury announced last week that the Government have launched a steering group to design a range of simple financial products, which will help new participants enter financial markets to provide straightforward and easy-to-understand products. I am sure that all hon. Members present today will welcome that.

I reiterate that we want the industry to take a lead in designing simple products, because we want the products to be viable commercial propositions for customers that will stand the test of time. There is an opportunity for industry to innovate properly, which may include mobile or shared services, and to develop a range of simple products that—again we return to the key point—meet their customers’ needs.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I am about to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s points, so if he will allow me to continue with my comments, I will do so later.

I think we have all acknowledged in today’s debate that the needs for access to finance go far wider than banks and building societies. The Government strongly believe that credit unions can act as alternatives to banks and building societies in providing affordable financial services to people who may not otherwise be able to access them. The Government are providing additional support to such institutions through the Department for Work and Pensions, which I know hon. Members will welcome. The results of some of its feasibility studies will be published in due course. That forms just one part of the Government’s efforts to promote a diverse and competitive financial services sector, on which I am sure Toby Perkins will have something to say.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am delighted to hear that there is an interest in credit unions, and the Minister is absolutely right to say that they can play an important part.

Regarding the substantive issues that have been raised today, Members will be forgiven for thinking that they are walking away from the debate with little sense that the Government are doing much about the issue. What we are hearing is that such decisions are for the banking sector. Regarding the main thrust of the debate, which is about customer service and public service responsibilities of the bank, I think Members will leave with the sense that there is little pressure from the Government to get banks to face up to their responsibility and recognise the broader economic impact if we do not sort the issue out. I think we need to see a far greater sense of urgency and action from the Government on the issue.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Gentleman will in that case be pleased to hear me move straight on to the next section of my speech, which deals exactly with what the Government are doing this very day in Committee: acting on the part of the financial system for which they have responsibility, which is to talk about financial conduct and competition in financial services. The key to the hon. Gentleman’s question is in his own words. There are two things at stake: customer service and public service. Banks and commercial institutions must be responsible for customer service, and I will now turn to some aspects for which the Government can reasonably be said to be responsible.

It is essential that consumers are able to apply competitive pressure and to understand where they can hold their bank to account and how the broader market operates. Customers should be able to vote with their feet and to switch their custom to banks that provide the best products for them, including access to a branch. The Government are therefore committed to fostering diversity and promoting competition in the banking sector. To that end, the Government have accepted in principle the competition recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking, which was mentioned earlier in the debate. The Government will now consider the proposals in more detail.

In line with those recommendations, I am pleased to note that the banking industry has already made some commitments, such as introducing a faster and safer switching service to ensure that customers can switch within seven days. Along with the more enhanced transparency measures that are already being implemented in the personal current account market, including making charges clearer and providing annual statements of charges to each customer, the new service will make it easier for customers to exercise what they have to do, which is vote with their feet if they feel that their bank is not meeting their needs.

To ensure that consumers are adequately protected in accessing financial services, the Government are also reforming the regulation of financial services. I remind the House that as part of the Financial Services Bill that is being discussed in Committee as we speak, the Government are creating a new and dedicated conduct of business regulator, the financial conduct authority. Also, the Office of Fair Trading has already committed to reviewing the personal current account market in 2012, about which I hope my hon. Friend Dr Coffey will read later.

It is clear that customer service is at stake here, and there is public interest in how rural communities can best be supported. However, it is also clear that the issue spans a substantial regulatory and non-regulatory agenda, and the Government are pursuing that. The landscape is changing rapidly, just as customers’ needs are changing, and the financial services sector will need to change to take account of that. It is vital that the sector continues to meet the needs of ordinary consumers, including those who prefer to access banking services via a branch.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire for his continued work on the issue. Clearly, we all share appreciation of that. I would also like to thank all the others who have contributed today. The Treasury will continue to take the issue into account as it pursues the wider financial inclusion agenda.