Financial Exclusion: Access to Cash — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Labour/Co-operative, Feltham and Heston 9:30 am, 21st May 2019

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Indeed, he has made similar important contributions in his work on the Treasury Committee. He talks about the acceptance of cash needing to be part of the debate, and I know that other hon. Members will be speaking on that issue later. It is an important part of the jigsaw.

I want to make a few points about our policy response and about how we need to move forward. The report from the Access to Cash Review made five broad and important recommendations: to guarantee access to cash, to ensure that cash continues to be widely accepted, to create a more resilient wholesale cash infrastructure, to make digital payments an option for everyone and to ensure joined-up regulation of cash. Within that, there are important roles for national and local government, banks, regulators, FinTech, building societies, payment systems operators and others. I also want to mention credit unions and their role, and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to this important issue, as we plan for the next decade and beyond.

There are 1.9 million members saving £2.4 billion in the UK’s 500 credit unions. Credit unions are financial co-operatives and are therefore member-owned and democratically run. They have huge potential to play much more of a role, but that will need support and Government leadership. The Treasury Committee recently raised concerns about credit unions either going bust or having to consolidate to survive, and there is an urgent need to consider how we better support them. I want to make a few suggestions about how we can support the expansion of the UK credit union sector. A response from the Minister today on that would be helpful, and perhaps we can continue the discussion after this debate, which is only an hour and a half long.

The first suggestion is to appoint a Minister for credit unions [Interruption.] Yes, but I hope that the Minister has a cross-cutting responsibility and is committed to placing credit unions at the centre of retail financial services to ensure more competition and choice in banking. The Minister will know that the Treasury is responsible for credit union legislation and that other Departments also have an important stake, especially the Department for Work and Pensions and the Cabinet Office. I hope he can discuss how, in his role, he will continue to join up that work across Government and where we might see faster progress.

The second suggestion is that all workers be given the right to save in a credit union directly from their pay. Some 39% of the population have no savings, and to counter that we believe that all employees should be given the right to save directly in a credit union, by payroll deduction and at no cost to them.

Thirdly, all schoolchildren ought to be given the right to join a credit union school savings club. Good savings habits for life should be encouraged at an early age. All policies in this area should reference credit unions as able to take such deposits, in the same way as banks and building societies can.

Fourthly, early changes should be introduced in the new legislative programme, to take the opportunity to build on the pre-election Treasury consultation on credit unions and dismantle obstacles that prevent the transformation of the UK credit union movement into a player with the significance of its international peers. Elsewhere, although there are market differences, credit unions are significant players: in Ireland 73% of the population are members of credit unions and in North America the figure is 43%.

I am pleased that, following the publication of the Access to Cash Review report, there were moves to respond to it very quickly. The Bank of England announced that it would convene relevant stakeholders to design a new system for distributing cash on the basis of the concerns that had been identified. The Treasury Committee took evidence and produced an important report on consumers’ access to financial services, which was published last week. The Treasury announced that it was commencing a new joint authorities cash-strategy group, involving the Treasury itself, the Payment Systems Regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England. There will indeed be much work for the new body to do.

I would be grateful if in his response, the Minister updated Members on strategy formulation, and how the work of the group will operate alongside the work being done by the Bank of England. There needs to be more joined-up working, rather than silos, overlap and duplication. I would also be grateful if he told us what progress he expects to be made by the autumn, when I understand the Access to Cash Review panel plans to meet and review its progress; which consumer bodies will be involved in the development of the strategy, particularly co-operative institutions; and how the group will respond to the individual recommendations made by the Access to Cash Review panel.

We face unique challenges in the modern world, and we need to make sure that both Parliament and the Government are responding to those challenges. Access to cash is not a problem that is unique to the United Kingdom, and neither is the need for robust legislation—as and when necessary—and regulation to ensure it. The Swedish legislature was recently forced to create a cross-party commission on access to cash, due to a public outcry after hospitals announced that they would no longer accept cash payments. Swedish bodies and representatives repeatedly told the Access to Cash Review that we needed to act now, as it is much harder to re-establish cash infrastructure than to preserve it.

Local authorities are an important part of this jigsaw, and of our response. My local council in Hounslow, led by Steve Curran and Lily Bath, is taking steps towards financial inclusion, which is vital as local authorities are at the forefront of helping local citizens deal with a lot of changes. Those changes have come through welfare reforms, but also from the housing crisis that we face—a number of people are in temporary accommodation, and may have been waiting for a long time—and are affecting people’s access to services in many ways, as well as their resilience.

I am pleased that there are more innovations in communication and that better research into segmentation is under way, including understanding the financial capabilities of council tenants. A higher than expected number of those tenants do not have bank accounts into which payments can be made, whether welfare or other payments. That is why it is important that we all, including local authorities, revisit the idea of closer working with credit unions. Given the importance of this work, Parliament and Government must act to promote the role of local government in making sure that we preserve access to cash and financial services.

To conclude, joining up how we move forward together is increasingly important, because of the complex map of the stakeholders involved. We are not going to get multiple chances at this; change is going to take time, and it has to be done right. It has to be done with the right research, the right underpinning and the right policy frameworks, with confidence, and with the message that if all those involved in financial services who have a stake and a role, including banks and those involved in cash infrastructure, do not play their part effectively, there will be regulation and legislation. We also need considerable programmes for digital inclusion, and incentives to diversify services within the industry. We need to make sure that those services continue to reach the people who need them, and to make sure that cash continues to be accepted.

I also hope that we can have a discussion about how this issue forms part of wider economic strategies, including industrial strategy. Labour has talked about regional banks providing an opportunity to ensure financial inclusion; there are examples from abroad that we can learn from, including the Sparkassen, and the Mann Deshi bank in India—I have been looking at whether we can do some reverse learning from that bank in my constituency. Mobile technology, which some of our financial services have already begun to use, has been vital in supporting women, particularly in rural areas—to set up their own businesses and manage their household finances.

I thank organisations such as City Pay it Forward that make an important contribution to increasing financial education in our schools; as I mentioned before, I consider that to be extremely important. Our new local charity, Hounslow’s Promise, is working to make sure that we have financial understanding and financial literacy, which are vital to ensuring that people can take advantage of new services that are on offer.