It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Ged Killen for raising the matter and for the thoughtful way he set out several issues that I will respond to. I also thank the other five Back-Bench Members who made contributions.
First, I assure hon. Members present, and across the House, that the Government recognise that widespread free access to cash remains extremely important for the day-to-day lives of many consumers and businesses in the UK, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society. Ultimately, the Government’s approach to payments is one of facilitating maximum choice; consumers should be free to choose the method of payment that best suits them. I acknowledge that several scenarios have been set out, particularly for rural and less affluent areas, and I will come on to address some actions that can be taken at different levels to deal with those challenges.
The fundamental context for the problem is the rise of digital payments and the decline in cash use. The UK has one of the most extensive free ATM networks in the world; some 82% of the ATM network is free. I listened carefully to the remarks of my hon. Friend Douglas Ross, who resists the option to pay a fee. I share his antipathy to that situation, but 98% of all ATM transactions are conducted on free ATMs. Moreover, the free ATM network has increased by 40% in the past 10 years and the number of pay-to-use ATMs has fallen by a similar percentage.
However, we must all acknowledge that people are increasingly moving away from cash and towards digital payments. To be specific, in the UK, cash use has fallen from 61% of all payments in 2007 to a remarkable 34% last year. That fall is expected to continue at pace. Correspondingly, the declining number of withdrawals at ATMs is forecast to continue as cash usage by consumers for payments declines. We can all, therefore, recognise the challenge of maintaining efficient, free access to cash.
In response to that challenge, LINK—the UK’s ATM network—announced a series of reforms at the beginning of the year, which have provided the main focus of the debate. Its work to maintain widespread free access to cash involves acknowledging that 80% of free ATMs are within 300 metres of one another. There is evidence that too many ATMs are clustered in busy, urban areas, which unnecessarily duplicates the supply of that service. Therefore, LINK’s measures aim to reduce the amount of ATM duplication in urban areas and avoid unnecessary growth in ATM numbers, despite the observed decline in consumer demand for cash.