It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Ged Killen on securing such an important debate on an issue that is of genuine concern to many of my local residents across Stoke-on-Trent North and Kidsgrove. The issue affects both rural and urban communities. Up and down our country, towns and smaller communities are losing access to community-based financial services on an almost monthly basis. These are not “nice to have” facilities; they are a lifeline for people and communities that still depend heavily on cash. I am of course referring to the community banking services—whether that means the local bank branch or the local ATM machines—on which so many people depend.
Earlier this year, I raised the issue of the impact of the closure of local bank branches, which we are also losing at an unprecedented rate. However, basic access to cash is now disappearing from our high streets. LINK’s own figures show that we are losing free-to-use ATMs at the rate of 250 a month. When we explore the reasons for this extraordinary cut to provision, we find that there are multiple excuses, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West made clear, it is in large part because of LINK’s cut in the interchange fee—a decision that had serious repercussions for our ATM network even before it was fully implemented.
The loss of these services is a serious problem in its own right, but there is a larger concern, too. The closure of well-used local bank branches in my constituency and the associated impact on residents and businesses have unfortunately been all too obvious in the last year. Burslem, Kidsgrove and Tunstall have all lost popular local branches. In the case of Burslem, we have found ourselves without a single bank branch left in the town and with no replacement of the ATMs that the NatWest and Lloyds banks operated until their closure. The sector’s lack of local understanding is evident all too often in its decision making. In Tunstall, the Co-operative bank justified its branch closure by stating that customers would be able to access the NatWest across the road. Unfortunately, that bank had already closed and its ATM machine went with it.
For communities that have already lost all-important branches and access to personal banking, ATMs represent a financial service of last resort—a fall-back for the millions of people who still make cash purchases every single day, and for those who do not make contactless payments and prefer to manage their household budgets by allocating cash towards their bills. To do that requires free access to money. A charge of £3.50 to access cash—as in parts of my constituency—is an extraordinarily large proportion for someone taking out only £10 or £20. As ever, those most struggling financially are being punished by the decisions of a faceless corporation.
In Burslem, the mother-town of the potteries, the closure of our last bank means that the only remaining free-to-use ATMs are inside retail facilities and there is nowhere for residents to withdraw cash in the evening. For a town with a thriving night-time economy, that is not just a hindrance to trade but a threat to public safety. Mr Hollobone, if you should leave the pub in Burslem late at night—I am sure you never would—and need money for a taxi, your only option is a long, dimly-lit walk to an out-of-town petrol station. That trip, understandably, could be threatening for many people, especially women, who would not want to make that journey alone. Alternatively, they would have to take a taxi and ask the driver to take them to an ATM and wait, which is far from ideal and costs more money.
In too many parts of my constituency and our country, free-to-use cash points are getting harder to find and further to reach, especially in areas of financial vulnerability. This is exactly the scenario that LINK’s financial inclusion programme was designed to prevent; it was supposed to identify the needs of rural and deprived areas and provide additional funding to ensure that communities did not have to travel more than 1 km, as we have already said, but it is not working. Huge swathes of my constituency do not have access to their money. Neither Goldenhill nor Chell Heath can access a free-to-use ATM within 1 km. In parts of my constituency, this is leading to a spike in the use of illegal loan sharks. There are human consequences to the decisions that LINK is making.
Often, the machines that LINK considers easily accessible to a community are not. The geography or terrain should also be considered. Given that an ATM costs between £7,000 and £10,000 to reinstall, it is almost impossible to get new ATMs in place where there is no provision. I know how important these services are to my constituents, which is why I secured a debate on community bank closures earlier this year. In every debate we discuss the immediate challenge, but we need a policy solution that tackles these issues in the round, which is why my constituency Labour party submitted a motion to this year’s Labour party conference calling for the protection of community banking services to be made official party policy. I am delighted that that policy has now been adopted.
We cannot allow banks to default on their responsibilities to our community, which is why I welcome this debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West on securing it. I fully support calls to protect our free-to-use ATM network and ensure every community has access to the services it needs.