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.