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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:33 am on 21st May 2019.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 10:33 am, 21st May 2019

I thank Seema Malhotra for securing this important debate. As we have heard today, there are serious concerns that too many people, including some of the most vulnerable, are being left behind.

Every one of us needs a viable way of paying for goods and services that meets our needs and circumstances. For some people that may be card payments, but we need access to cash for goods and services if that is most appropriate to the way we live our lives and if it suits our circumstances. Digital payments have become easier, but research shows that more than 8 million adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society.

It is important to remember that many people pay for goods and services in cash because their circumstances mean that they do not have the option to pay in any other way. The biggest factor in paying for goods and services in cash is where someone is on the income scale: the lower someone is down the scale, the more likely they are to rely on cash transactions, regardless of their age. Importantly, approximately 9% of those who rely on cash transactions do so as a budgeting strategy because they fear that if they do not use cash, they may overspend and fall into debt. Using cash helps them to keep track of their spending.

There is no doubt that cash allows many people a degree of control that digital transactions do not offer, as we heard from Jim Shannon. They can hold it and count it—and when it is gone, it is gone. It is a real and physical aid to budgeting. Indeed, debt advice charities actively encourage people in debt to cut up their cards and deal only in cash, for obvious reasons. That goes back to the points that have been made about financial education.

We have heard much about the decline of ATMs, but that is merely the tip of quite a significant iceberg—it is a symptom of a wider trend. The underlying issue is that some businesses prefer payments to be made digitally, because of the costs of handling and banking cash; we heard today that Vodafone no longer accepts cash payments at all. We have also heard much about access to high street banks. In my constituency, North Ayrshire and Arran, the banks are stampeding out of our towns with alarming and eye-watering speed. In the past eight years, Scotland has lost one third of its banks, and closures continue apace, as the hon. Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) described.

Driving consumers towards digital payments clearly excludes those consumers who do not want—or simply do not have the option— to pay for goods digitally. If we want businesses to continue to accept cash, we have to make it easier for them to do so, and to bank and deposit it in a way that works for them. Post offices have been suggested as an alternative to banks, but post offices are in crisis. Many postmasters are finding their business increasingly unsustainable, and they often work for less than minimum wage—an issue that I raised with the Treasury and with Post Office Ltd almost two years ago.

For those who need to use cash, we must keep it viable. It is important to remember that 1.3 million people in the UK do not even have a bank account, for a whole variety of reasons. Problems with ATM access are both a cause and a symptom of society that is moving closer to being cashless. That should give us cause for real concern.