ATM Closures — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:23 am on 4th December 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 10:23 am, 4th December 2018

I will not give way. I will proceed.

So far, 2018 has seen 670 local bank branches closing across Scotland, following close on the heels of the 879 that closed in 2017. In response to this debate, the banks will no doubt tell us that fewer and fewer of us use cash in our transactions; but research shows that at least three-quarters of us use cash at least two or three times a week and it is still the most popular method of payment. Ruth Smeeth pointed out—as did almost every contributor to the debate—that those on lower incomes and older people are likely to be hardest-hit by any reductions in access to cash. The less well-off you are and the older you are, the more likely you are to rely on cash transactions, with just over a quarter of people not using card payments at all.

This perfect storm of a reduction in free ATMs and bank closures means that now there are real concerns about the effect that the closures will have on consumers and small businesses without adequate access to cash. This financial and social exclusion is utterly unacceptable. Consumers are gradually being forced into online banking, and the evidence suggests that now they are being gradually forced into cashless transactions—so much for consumer choice.

We heard from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West that in January 2018, LINK announced a series of four reductions in the interchange fee—the amount paid every time a customer uses a free ATM, and which funds the entire free-to-use network—from around 25p per transaction to 20p. However, concerns have been raised and, as we heard from the hon. Gentleman, the third and fourth reductions have been cancelled and put on hold respectively. Cutting the interchange fee was supposed to reduce machines in areas where there were considered to be too many, but maintain geographical coverage of ATMs across the UK. LINK commissioned a review to consider consumer requirements for cash machines over the next five to 15 years. That review was cognisant of the fact that financial inclusion is extremely important for all consumers and will remain so. Their needs and requirements must be met. Like all hon. Members in Westminster Hall today, I look forward to the findings of that review in March.

Meanwhile, research carried out by Which? is truly shocking. It shows that free-to-use ATMs are closing at a rate of 250 a month, while over 100 ATMs with so-called protected status have stopped transacting in the same period. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West set out the challenges associated with ATMs with protected status. Analysis shows that from November 2017 to April 2018, following LINK’s announcement about cutting the fees paid for each ATM transaction, the rate of cashpoint closures increased from around 50 per month to 300 each month. LINK’s own figures show that between January and June this year, 500 cashpoints closed each month. The implications of all this are extremely significant, with more machines being lost in rural communities despite LINK’s pledge that changes would only target urban machines, not rural ones.

Just under half of us use a cashpoint at least once a week, with 80% of us saying that access to free-to-use cash machines is important in our daily lives for paying for goods and services. Forcing people to pay to access their own cash would leave around 10% of us struggling and would constitute nothing less than financial exclusion. It would hit small and local businesses hard, as was set out in some detail by the hon. Member for Strangford. As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West said, already many people struggle to access free cashpoints, with around 11% of us having to walk for more than 30 minutes to access the nearest cash machine and around 9% saying that the nearest machine is simply too far away to reach on foot. That, coupled with the fact that many people do not have access to a car, makes life extremely difficult, as Jamie Stone reminded us.

One in five of us currently do not have access to free-to-use cash, but it seems this might get worse. That is why the calls from Which? for the Payment Systems Regulator to bring more regulatory scrutiny and intervention to bear on this issue are so important. I agree that it is time for the financial inclusion programme to be amended to ensure that the entire ATM network is fit for purpose. LINK has tried to address concerns that all ATMs 1 km or more from the next free ATM will be exempt from any reductions and cuts to fees for transactions made and is increasing the subsidy for these machines, but there is some concern that these measures, although well-meaning, simply do not go far enough. Exempting individual cashpoints from cuts to fees might not be enough to save them. Cashpoint closures are not decided by LINK. We know that recent closures and the inability of LINK to quickly and effectively replace protected machines shows the shortcomings of the current approach.

We have heard from many Members today that it really is time for the Payment Systems Regulator to show its teeth. It seems eminently sensible for the PSR to conduct its own review of LINK’s financial inclusion programme, including the ATM replacement process, because that must be fit for purpose. The Government must also beef up the powers of the PSR to allow it to protect cash, and impose a duty of care on it to ensure the sustainability of the UK’s cash infrastructure. I believe that would do much to protect consumers, the choices they want to make and their financial inclusion.

If it had the power from Government, the PSR could introduce robust measures to ensure that all our communities have free and easy access to their own cash. I urge the Minister to set out how he can empower, and what he is prepared to do to empower, the PSR, to ensure that there is a robust future for free-to-use cash machines. In correspondence with me on 12 September, the PSR has admitted that it is “concerned about these closures”.