It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on securing this debate on an important issue. I agree with her point that there is widespread concern across the country about access to cash. It is hugely important to us all. We all need cash to varying degrees for incidental purchases, giving children money for school, paying the milkman and so on. Access to cash is often, though not always, easier in cities and towns, but our country is also made up of lots of smaller towns, villages and communities.
There are 2.2 million people in the UK almost entirely reliant on cash in their daily lives. We know that the use of cash is in decline, but, as we have already heard, the UK is not ready to become a cashless society, and sleepwalking into one will leave millions, including many people in my constituency, behind.
The communities that I represent in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney are ranked in the Welsh index of multiple deprivation as some of the most deprived in the country. Deprivation is measured by a range of statistics, including health inequalities, educational attainment, income levels and access to services. In my constituency, some of the economically deprived areas are also geographically isolated communities such as Bedlinog, Ponsticill, Fochriw, Butetown, Abertysswg, Pontlottyn, Phillipstown and Aberfan. Those communities have a strong community spirit and breathtaking views up or down the valley, but they are often isolated from services and support. The Access to Cash independent review established in July 2018 concluded that around 17% of the UK population would struggle to cope in a cashless society. I welcome the recommendations in the review to ensure that consumers can get cash wherever they live or work, and I look forward to the further work to consider the report’s findings.
In the south Wales valleys, as in many other parts of the country, we have seen banks closing, with a 38% reduction in the number of banks since 2010. In the Upper Rhymney Valley part of my constituency, the last bank closed in January. On the Merthyr Tydfil side, the only banks that remain are in the town centre, leaving huge parts of the county borough without access to bank facilities. There are ATMs throughout the area, but many impose a charge for residents to withdraw their cash. As an example, Aberfan has three ATMs that all require a fee to be charged, and Bedlinog has two machines that are both chargeable.
Along with my Welsh Assembly colleague, Dawn Bowden, I am currently working with the company LINK to identify communities that have little or no access to free-to-use cash machines. We hope that shop owners will convert to free-to-use machines. As we know, subsidies are available for cash machines located in deprived areas, with the first ATM to convert to free usage receiving the subsidy.
Geographically isolated communities often experience issues with digital inclusion because the broadband is not as strong as it is in other areas. The report and the attention that it has received is welcome. However, it must be part of an ongoing awareness campaign to ensure that we move at a pace that does not leave communities behind.