Consumer Access: Financial Services — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:51 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation) 1:51 pm, 6th June 2019

To be fair, I thought it was more.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I commend Nicky Morgan and her Committee for this really valuable report, on which I think most of us are agreed. As always, I want to give the Scottish perspective—I think I have got it down to a fine art now.

According to Which?, Scotland has lost more than a third of its bank and building society branches in just eight years. Some 610 branches closed down between 2010 and 2018. Santander’s recent decision to close 15 branches in Scotland will have a devastating impact on staff, customers and local firms. Branches will be lost right across central Scotland, in Alloa, St Andrews, Troon, Forfar and other places. It is of deep regret that the decision was made without the bank undertaking a full consultation with staff and local communities, which will be devastated by the closure of local services, and it is unacceptable that they will be shut so rapidly; all the branches will close by the end of the year.

The Treasury Committee is right when it says:

“there are still large sections of society who rely on bank branches to carry out their banking needs.”

That includes elderly people—although not all of them; we cannot all be lumped together—and small businesses, especially in rural areas that rely on tourism, where people are using cash. Those businesses need to be able to bank that money locally; otherwise, they will lose even more business when they are not on their premises but 20 or 30 miles away, trying to get to the nearest bank branch.

A bank branch network, or at least a face-to-face banking solution, is still a vital component of the financial services sector. The right hon. Lady referred to how important that was in the case of TSB. A branch network must be preserved. The UK Government must step in and act; they can no longer argue that they cannot intervene. They made a similar argument on RBS closing branches, but we now know the Treasury thought it was all right to force RBS to pull finance from customers through the asset protection scheme. The effect on consumers of the closures must be factored into the Government’s decisions.

We support the Committee view that, if necessary,

“the Government should make changes to competition law to allow banks to share facilities in order to maintain a sustainable branch network”.

As Colin Clark said, that cost should fall to the banks, not the customers. We also agree that

intervention by Government or the FCA may be necessary to force banks to provide a physical network for consumers.”

We agree with the Committee that

“the Lending Standards Board—through its oversight of the Access to Banking Standard—should publish the examples of non-compliance by providers within its annual report on the Standard, to increase transparency and the potential for external scrutiny over branch closures.”

The SNP continues to lead the campaign at Westminster to protect our post office network. I have spoken in so many debates on post offices, and I sometimes feel I am in danger of repeating myself, but these things are worth saying over and over. We agree with the Committee that post offices

“should not be seen as a replacement for a branch network, but a complementary proposition where available.”

Following our campaigning, the SNP has welcomed news that from October 2019, Post Office Ltd will raise the rates of payment that sub-postmasters receive for taking personal and business banking deposits. That will represent a near threefold increase on current rates. In my time as an MP, I have been consistently lobbied by sub-postmasters, because they are subsidising banking services to their own detriment. The impact of the closure of a post office following the closure of a bank branch is devastating, and not just in rural areas. In urban areas, too, there are vulnerable people who cannot move distances and who are only happy carrying out financial transactions with people they know and trust. That is extremely important.

The announcement of the increase in payments comes just weeks after my colleague and hon. Friend Gavin Newlands secured a House of Commons debate on the sustainability of community and sub-post offices, in which he reiterated SNP calls to give sub-postmasters a fairer settlement. In recent months, as the SNP spokesperson for small business, I have written to the UK Government calling for changes to strengthen the post office network. Sub-postmasters have continually raised concerns about not receiving adequate financial remuneration. The National Federation of SubPostmasters found in a recent survey of its members that one in five post offices risk closing in the next year as the result of poor remuneration from Post Office Ltd; many postmasters are paid less than minimum wage for running their shops. That cannot go on. We need sustainable post offices, not as a substitute for the banks, but as a complement.

The UK Government must go further and commit to a full and independent review of sub-postmaster pay. I know the Minister is from the Treasury, but it would be good if he could have a chat with the Minister for small business on our behalf. In addition, plans to close Crown branches at the centre of our communities must be reversed to ensure the full range of services people have enjoyed are still available.

We agree with the Committee that

The Post Office should not be subsidising the big six banks’
lack of a branch network...If a renegotiation of the current arrangements is necessary to make the scheme profitable, the Post Office should do so, with the full support of the Government.”

We should not measure the success of Post Office Ltd on profit alone, which seems to be the prevalent measure at the moment.

We agree with the Committee that when Post Offices are left as the only way for customers to carry out basic banking practices,

“the banks should be required to make provision for ‘banking hubs’
within the local Post Office. The ‘hub’
should be properly funded, with an agreed private and business banking provision set by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Treasury. Postmasters must be trained, equipped and compensated to make the hubs viable. BEIS should make an immediate assessment of what the banking provision should be, the indicative cost per hub, and propose how the banks should fund it.”

The UK Government must act before a fifth of Scotland’s free ATMs start charging over the next year. That is another huge problem, especially for vulnerable people and those in isolated communities. They are having to travel further and further to access their own money, and are being charged more and more to do so. It is almost impossible to spend money in London during the week, and I frequently arrive back in my constituency with no cash. We are used to that in this place, but it is not like that everywhere across the UK, or for everyone.