The right hon. Lady is absolutely correct. The fact that somebody’s very constrained budget can be further constrained by their having to pay to extract their own money from their bank is absolutely ridiculous in this day and age. People are living hand to mouth, and the loss of £2.50 or more every time they take their money out of their bank via an ATM is absolutely unforgivable.
A cross-party group of MPs found that more than 3,000 ATMs have closed in the last 18 months. According to the Treasury Committee, unless the UK Government step in to protect free-to-access ATMs, the UK is at risk of
“inadvertently becoming a cashless society. For a large portion of society, including some of the most vulnerable, this would have stark consequences.”
The latest figures from LINK, the UK’s largest cash machine network, revealed that 1,300 ATMs were lost between the end of January and the beginning of July last year.
The consumer organisation Which? predicted that free cash machines would become a thing of the past, after it emerged that 1,700 ATMs in the UK switched to charging in the first three months of this year alone. Cash machines in Scotland have disappeared at a rate of 32 a month in the 11 months to April. According to Which?, Scotland lost 204 free-to-use cash machines, which is 4% of the network. That is unsustainable.
The ATM Industry Association has warned that a fifth of Scotland’s free ATMs will start charging customers in the next year. The association—its members include banks such as HSBC, independent ATM operators and payment systems such as Visa—says the problem revolves around a 10%, or 2p, cut in the fee that banks pay cash machine operators every time money is withdrawn. Banks are saving money by closing branches, then giving money to ATM providers. They warn that the move to charging cash machines will increase if LINK moves to cut the fee even further as part of a review that is due to be completed by the end of 2020.
Given the recent closures of bank branches and the lack of support provided to the post office network, the SNP is concerned that a lack of cash facilities will hurt families and small businesses across Scotland. For people in rural areas, and for the most vulnerable members of our communities who might have less access to transport and online support, often the only option is their local cash machine. It is totally inequitable that they effectively pay a tax on cash withdrawals.
The right hon. Lady talked about insurance companies and the difficulty in insuring when there are pre-existing conditions, something I recently had difficulty with. I totally empathise. Vulnerable people—especially people with mental health conditions, whom the right hon. Lady mentioned—need people on the other side of the table or desk who can help them overcome their fear, allay their suspicions, and help them to become fully working members of our society. Someone can be vulnerable one day and not vulnerable the next, and systems have to take account of that.
The right hon. Lady also talked about the difficulties with powers of attorney and the duty of care, which perhaps should be regulated. The SNP would not go against any of the recommendations on those subjects. It is absolutely inexcusable that Tory Ministers are refusing to lift a finger as communities face mass closures of local ATMs and bank branches; as we have heard, it is often the most vulnerable who use them. The consumer group Which? is calling on the UK Government to appoint a regulator to oversee cash infrastructure in the UK. It is vital that they consider the proposal and introduce practical solutions before the cash crisis loses Scotland a fifth of its ATMs.
The SNP echoes the Committee’s conclusion that the independent Access to Cash review’s recommendations should be accepted. They include recommendations to “guarantee consumer access to cash—ensuring that consumers can get cash wherever they live or work…take steps to keep cash accepted, whether by a local coffee shop or a large utility provider…call for radical change to the wholesale cash infrastructure, moving from a commercial model to more of a ‘utility’ approach, which will keep cash sustainable for longer…government, regulators and the industry should make digital inclusion in payments a priority…a clear government policy on cash, supported by a joined-up regulatory approach which treats cash as a system.”
We cannot go on leaving our most vulnerable communities and people behind. It is all right for people like us to do without cash, but it is not all right for huge swathes of our communities. I hope the Minister can agree to some of the Treasury Committee’s recommendations and help move forward the debate about post offices, bank hubs and so on.