Research published this week by the consumer champion Which? found that 339 Scottish bank branches have closed their doors since 2015. However, we need to remember that this is not only about branches closing. When banks leave, they all too often take cash machines with them, and at this stage I pay tribute to Ged Killen, who I know has done a lot of work on the situation around ATMs.
The rate of loss of cash machines across the UK should alarm us all, with LINK reporting that the UK lost more than 2,500 free-to-use cash machines last year. Financial exclusion is soaring and is fuelled by the transition from cash, hitting certain sections of society harder than others. For example, I regularly make home visits to constituents with physical disabilities, who tell me they rely on taxis for their freedom. I do not know what it is like elsewhere in the UK, but few taxi companies in Glasgow accept card payments. I also still encounter many constituents who have had a struggle even to open a bank account in the first place, so we really cannot assume that everyone has a debit card. Some of these people will quite simply lose quite a big element of their freedom if they lose easy access to their cash. Others might even be driven to high-interest credit cards or pre-pay debit cards that charge people a fee simply for accessing their own money.
Mental health is also all too often overlooked. The Money and Mental Health Policy Institute report “Seeing through the fog” contains startling testimonies from people with mental health problems. One says:
“I find doing things face to face much easier and better for me. I hate doing things over the phone and can get quite anxious when doing so…I don’t trust online banking and will avoid this for as long as I can.”
“I can’t handle the internet, I need human contact.”
Another respondent says:
“I need to see a person. I can’t cope with all this online banking stuff.”
It is little wonder that the institute’s evidence to the ongoing Treasury Committee inquiry into access to financial services concluded:
“Bank branch closures may particularly disadvantage people with mental health problems who struggle with remote methods of communication and rely on face-to-face support from firms to manage their finances.”
We cannot ignore people like this as society moves away from cash, and we certainly cannot treat them as collateral damage in the march of progress.
We have heard time and again that the UK is sleepwalking into becoming a cashless society, but that is no longer the case, because the evidence is there. We are here to discuss the issue today, and Ministers should listen and react, because we cannot afford to sleepwalk.