It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry, and I thank Seema Malhotra for bringing this important debate to the House. This issue has been debated many times, and I see many familiar faces in the Chamber today.
We are moving towards a cashless society far too fast, and a number of our constituents are simply not ready. As the chair of the Access to Cash Review stated:
“If we sleepwalk into a cashless society, millions will be left behind.”
Between 2015 and 2017, I have lost 12 banks in my constituency. Since I was elected, I have lost the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Bank of Scotland, the Clydesdale Bank and Santander, and my TSB branch has reduced its hours. That acceleration is concerning, and we cannot continue to sit back and let it happen.
In the short amount of time I have, I will raise three issues. First, rural areas are suffering most, because when those areas lose a branch, their communities cannot simply adapt. They have poorer transport links to get them to the next branch; they have poorer connectivity in terms of digital options; they are scared of using phone banking, and sometimes do not have the mobile signal that they require; and they have fewer cash machines. Quite simply, those communities are an easy target for our banks. Like many Members present, I have a higher number of older people—those over 65—living in my constituency, and those people rely heavily on that banking provision. Some 20% of the population lives in rural areas, yet only 12% of bank branches are in those areas. Banks exist to serve all consumers, but what we are seeing is banks serving urban consumers, with rural consumers losing out.
Time and again, the banks say that the solution is digitisation. However, in Angus, only 83% are covered by superfast broadband, so they immediately alienate the other 17%. We have lost a number of Post Office branches, and—as has already been mentioned—for viability reasons, that is not going to pick up. Quite frankly, the numbers do not stack up. Post offices do not provide the same service: many services are missing, and we do not have privacy in our post offices. As we all know, when we go in to post our letters or a parcel, we are often waiting in queues. It is not particularly private, and often this is taking place in a small shop as well.
There is a whole host of issues; I do not have enough time to cover them all in three minutes, but one obvious issue is access to cash. We cannot continue to suggest that everybody is turning to digital, because we have small shops; my high streets are struggling, and we need to ensure that they have access so that they are not penalised every time somebody makes a card payment. We need that continued access to be able to secure the future of our high streets.
My final point, which I have made to the Minister several times, is that we must look towards banking hubs. We have to look at alternatives to ensure our consumers continue to have choice.