I will come on to talk about the powers of the Payment Systems Regulator, which I have met. My judgment is that it has considerable power over the LINK network. It can mandate LINK to do certain things and it can impose fines. I would need to look carefully at what that proposal would involve and where it would be different from the powers that LINK has at the moment.
I acknowledge LINK’s independent review, which is chaired by Natalie Ceeney. As was mentioned earlier, the report will be published in March. It is looking at long-term access to cash and exploring further the impact on consumers and small businesses of the shift from cash to digital payments. I have met Natalie Ceeney and encouraged her to look as broadly as possible at this issue. I imagine that the nature of her powers, as well as what she needs to do her job, will be part of her report.
This House should also note that the payment systems regulator, which the Government established in 2015 to ensure that payment systems work well for those who use them and which regulates LINK, has taken a lead in examining this issue. Following the first publication of LINK’s ATM footprint report, the regulator used its powers to place a specific direction on LINK. This is designed to make sure that LINK does all it can to fulfil its public commitment to preserve the broad geographic spread of free ATMs and to report to the regulator on a regular basis.
I think I have addressed a number of the concerns raised in the debate. The Government have invested heavily in maintaining a stable network of post office branches. Anyone can use their LINK-enabled bank card to take money out for free at the counter of every one of the 11,500 post offices in the UK. I acknowledge that a post office needs to be open for that to happen, so I am not presenting it as a perfect solution, but it is a significant alternative source of cash for many people.
Additionally, in the autumn Budget at the end of October the Chancellor announced the Government’s plan to help local high streets to evolve and adapt to changing consumer demands. It included £675 million for the future high streets fund to support local areas’ plans to make their high streets and town centres fit for the future.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West raised a couple of specific points about digital payments failure. The Treasury and the UK financial authorities take this issue very seriously and are investing in improving the operational resilience of the system, including cyber, across the financial sector. Over the next five years, £1.9 billion will be spent on cyber-security initiatives.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about helping the vulnerable. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has a digital skills partnership that is looking at partnerships across the private, public and charity sectors, which also involves training in digital skills for adults.
On the point about the powers of the PSR, it has the power to direct LINK and impose financial penalties; it is committed to using those powers. It also made a direct intervention on the interchange fees to LINK to deal with this issue.
To conclude, I thank the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West for raising this issue. It is surely right that we consider the impact of an increasingly digital world and ensure that we protect those who need to be able to pay by cash. In the here and now, cash use remains important; it is still the second most frequently used payment method, just behind debit cards. We also know that around 2.2 million consumers predominantly use cash, many of whom are the more vulnerable members of our society.
I take this matter very seriously. I chair the Government’s financial inclusion forum, and for me there is a combination of interventions. There will be interventions from the regulator to deal with those who are making it very difficult for people to access affordable credit. However, this issue is also about increasing capacity.
I do not rule anything out in terms of efforts to improve the situation. With my officials, I have spoken to the PSR about this issue, and it has engaged with the regulator and LINK on this topic. I assure the Chamber this morning that I will continue to emphasise the importance that this Government place on widespread free access to cash.