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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:23 pm on 6th June 2019.

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Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick The Exchequer Secretary 2:23 pm, 6th June 2019

Thank you, Mr Walker; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I do not intend to use up all the time, unless there are many interventions from colleagues. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds). A dangerous precedent was set in the Lords by my colleague, the noble Lord Bates, who resigned after arriving 10 seconds late to a debate, so I am always careful to be on time now, although I am sure being 15 seconds late is allowed.

I thank both the Treasury Committee and its chair, my right hon. Friend Nicky Morgan, for securing the debate and for this important piece of work. As she knows, this debate comes just a few weeks before the Treasury will formally respond to the Committee’s comments and recommendations on behalf of the Government. I hope that she will forgive me for not pre-empting that by providing the full formal response, but I will try to set out our approach, our record in recent years and some further steps that we intend to take, as well as impress on her how seriously the Government take the issue and how carefully we will read and respond to the important recommendations in her Committee’s report.

Financial inclusion is a priority for this Government and has been for some time, particularly, as I hope my right hon. Friend will recognise, over the last two or three years, when in each successive Budget the Government have taken a number of important steps to address some of the issues that the report raises and on which it urges us to go much further. Like my right hon. Friend and others who have spoken, I think that financial inclusion is extremely important to build a unified society and economy. In her introduction, she made the important point that we have to take a wide view of what “vulnerability” means, because each and every one of us can be vulnerable at different stages in our lives, not just those whom one might stereotypically assume to be vulnerable.

That is reflected in the broad definition of “vulnerability” that the FCA is working towards. It has identified four indicators of potential vulnerability: low financial capability, low financial resilience, life events, which of course can happen to all of us, and physical and mental health conditions, which one might most clearly recognise as vulnerability. The Government, like the regulator, view this issue with the broadest possible definition.

I will say a few words on what we have done most recently. In November 2017, following a report from the Lords Financial Exclusion Committee, which the hon. Member for Oxford East mentioned, the Government announced the creation of the financial inclusion policy forum. The forum has now met three times and has successfully brought together for the first time the key leaders from across the industry, charities—including some of those mentioned today—and consumer groups, as well as Ministers from throughout Government and the regulators, to provide the leadership and co-ordination in tackling financial exclusion that the issue demands. The Government published our first financial inclusion report on 25 March this year, which takes stock of progress in the area. We intend to continue doing so annually.

Affordable credit was one of the core areas of the report. The policy forum is widely recognised by the sector as an important initiative and it has already managed to deliver tangible progress, although I hope it will go further in the months and years to come. A sub-group of the forum that was set up last summer to examine the issues of access to affordable credit made a number of recommendations. To build on that work, at last year’s Budget we announced a package of affordable credit measures aimed at supporting the affordable credit sector and offering more choice and a better deal to consumers who struggle to access mainstream credit.

Some of those measures have already been referenced in this debate. They include a £2 million affordable credit challenge fund, harnessing the UK’s undoubtedly great capability in the FinTech sector to address the specific challenges faced by social and community lenders. The Government have appointed Nesta as the delivery partner to run the challenge fund, and we expect to launch it in the summer—so, in the coming weeks.

Other measures include a change in the regulatory boundary of credit broking, to allow registered social landlords to refer their tenants to social and community lenders; a pilot prize-linked savings scheme to encourage the growth of the credit union sector and to encourage consumers to build up their personal savings, which we readily acknowledge are lower than most of us would like to see; and a feasibility study to design a pilot for a UK no-interest loans scheme, which we have already heard about. That scheme will be aimed at helping those at the margins of the financial system, for whom borrowing from social and community lenders can still be unaffordable. The Government have appointed London Economics, which is undertaking the study and will report back this summer. Depending on the results, we will then move quickly into the pilot design phase and then to implementation.

The Government are also directing an initial £55 million of dormant assets funding towards financial inclusion, primarily to address affordable credit. That will be deployed by a new, independent organisation, Fair4All Finance, which was launched in February. We are pleased with the rapid progress that is making, and excited to see it begin work with a range of partners to tackle financial exclusion, but clearly there is more to be done.

We heard some comments about basic bank accounts. We think, as right hon. and hon. Members here do, that they play an important role. I will take away the comments from the hon. Member for Oxford East about access to and knowledge of those bank accounts. A large number of people benefit from them. The last report that we received, published in December 2018, found that almost 7.5 million basic bank accounts were open at that time, deployed through the nine designated institutions. The banks that are required to provide basic bank accounts send reports to the Treasury, so we receive accurate information, but we could perhaps do more to monitor those banks’ activities and ensure that they are more visible to potential customers, particularly the most vulnerable. I will take away the hon. Lady’s comments in that regard.

The report made a number of recommendations on safeguarding access to cash. The Government recognise that the use of digital payment is growing very fast—among the fastest of any major economy: in Europe, only a few Nordic countries are moving to a more cashless society at a faster pace than our own. Although we acknowledge the many benefits for consumers and the economy, there is and will continue to be for many years to come—almost certainly throughout our lifetimes—a need for cash and traditional face-to-face methods of banking to continue alongside the new thriving digital economy. Running both the digital and the cash systems side by side in all parts of the country and for all consumers, including the most vulnerable, will be a considerable challenge to us as Government and policy makers in the years ahead, but one that we must meet.

We have set up the joint authority cash strategy group, which responds directly to one of the report’s recommendations. It brings together the Bank of England, the Payment Systems Regulator and the Financial Conduct Authority to provide comprehensive oversight of the UK’s cash infrastructure, from supply to customer access. That will complement the Bank of England’s work to reform the wholesale cash industry, to encourage innovation and guarantee resilience even in a much lower cash usage environment. The organisation has already started work, and I am happy to update the Committee and other interested Members in the month ahead as we develop this area of work.

Industry has played a central role, and will have one in future, to maintain access to cash, because with industry innovation we can do more at a lower cost. I was pleased to meet Natalie Ceeney recently to discuss the findings of her excellent “Access to Cash Review”, which showed that creative industry initiatives are already being developed, including encouraging greater use of cashback. We think that the industry, perhaps with Government help, can do more to encourage a resurgence in cashback, which was prevalent but is somewhat less so today. It could be part of the answer where ATMs are in decline. There might be opportunities for smaller shops such as convenience stores to return to offering cashback if they have stopped doing so. We would like to take that forward in future.

We have heard about ATMs, where there is undoubtedly a challenge. There remains a large network of free ATMs in this country—among the largest of any developed country in the world. In 2017, the number of free ATMs in the country reached its peak at 54,500, many of which were clustered in the wrong places, particularly in urban areas with the highest footfall. Since then the number has declined. Even though there might be a logical case for reducing the number of ATMs in areas with high footfall, where they are in less demand as more of us use contactless and digital payments, we want to ensure that we protect the people who live in harder-to-serve areas.

The number of ATM transactions is falling by around 6% year-on-year. Demand is reducing but it varies quite significantly in different parts of the country, as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw suggested. The last figures show that there was a 10% reduction in the use of ATMs in London, but the figure was as low as 2% in areas such as the east midlands, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough and I represent, and in Northern Ireland. There are large variations by region, age and socio-economic group. We need to pay careful attention to that. The LINK organisation has made an important commitment to maintain a good and appropriate geographical representation of ATMs, and a particular commitment that we intend to hold it to: that if the last ATM in one kilometre closes and no alternative is provided by the local post office in that radius, it will continue to seek an alternative location for an ATM and will use the subsidies that it provides without limit until an alternative is found. That is an important commitment, and we all need to hold LINK to account. I assure the Committee and colleagues here that I will play my role in doing that, as will my colleague, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury.

Post offices play a key role. They provide a good range of banking services—not a complete range, but most of the services that individuals and smaller businesses will require. Although the number of post offices continues to decline, it is more stable than it has been for a long time. There are 11,500 branches across the country, and we will continue to do all we can to support them. My hon. Friend Colin Clark, who is no longer in the debate, raised the important question of fees for services that banks provide to those running post offices. There has been a negotiation that has led to a significant increase in the amount of money that banks pay of between two and three times the amount of money that post offices receive for offering those services. I am very alive to that issue and the need of those running post offices, often on low margins and taking very little money out of their business, to receive fair compensation for their work.

The wider question of digital inclusion, which the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw raised, is very important. Although younger people and perhaps those in this debate enjoy using digital payments, people have to be able to use digital services and live in areas with 5G or broadband to access them. In rural areas, that is not always the case, although there have been great steps forward. We are alive to that issue and we are working on our digital strategy as a country to ensure that more people have access to basic digital training. Through education we are taking steps in that regard. We should recognise that some new products coming out of the FinTech sector will be very useful to those who have the digital skills to access them, whether that is income smoothing, budgeting skills or the ability to share payments and bills among flatmates. They will make life much easier, but that is dependent on having the digital skills to access those services.

Financial guidance is not limited to digital skills. Last year, we established a new single financial guidance body, the Money and Pensions ServiceMAPS—by merging three existing bodies, Pension Wise, the Pensions Advisory Service and the Money Advice Service. The new body provides money guidance for members of the public at every stage of their financial journey. The Government’s commitment to improve people’s financial capability and the provision of financial education is reflected in MAPS’s strategic function to develop and co-ordinate a national strategy that will build on and further progress the Money Advice Service’s work on financial capability.

It is particularly important that children and young people receive good quality financial education to help them to shape their financial habits later in life. That is why financial literacy was made statutory in the national curriculum in England in 2014, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough will know from her work as Secretary of State for Education, as part of the curriculum for citizenship education for 11 to 16-year-olds. As reports from the all-party parliamentary group on financial education for young people have recognised, there is more to do to ensure that that education is delivered well in all parts of the country. We recognise that there is more we can do in that regard.

Public funding for debt advice in England has risen to £55 million in 2019-20. That provides help with debt to more than 560,000 people, an increase of 85,000 compared with 2018-19. In addition, during autumn 2018, the Government held a consultation on a breathing space scheme in response to campaigning by a number of Members. That will give vulnerable consumers 60 days’ respite from creditor action, giving them time to access debt advice and put their finances on a sustainable footing. The Government will publish our response to the consultation very shortly, and we have committed to laying regulations before the end of this year to establish breathing space.

The Committee’s report also made recommendations about how financial services can work better for vulnerable consumers. The Government have given the FCA strong powers to protect consumers, and we expect it to continue its work in this area. The FCA and other regulators no doubt will read with interest the comments and recommendations in the report; in turn, I will certainly pay careful attention to their responses.

We welcome the FCA’s work to improve our understanding of vulnerability in the context of financial services, including its forthcoming publication of guidance to firms on how to identify and treat vulnerable consumers. The breadth of the definition of vulnerability in the Committee’s report no doubt will influence and inform the FCA’s work in that regard. Through the Consumer Forum, the Government and regulators from across sectors are working to better understand vulnerable consumers. That will inform the actions taken by the Government and regulators in this space.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough asked particular questions about the duty of care. We will give that careful thought and respond in a couple of weeks’ time, as we will to her comments about the Equality Act. Those were very important questions. We will give more thought to them and respond to her, I hope in the next few weeks.

We all agree that access to useful and affordable financial products and services is essential to individuals, regardless of their background or income. Part of this is about ensuring that financial services are inclusive to all customers and protecting those who are financially vulnerable by making the right products and advice available. The banks are taking steps in that regard. I met the staff at my local bank in Newark last Friday and saw the quality of training that that bank, Lloyds, provides to protect vulnerable people, such as those who suffer from dementia and those at risk of scams, including new ones emerging as a result of the new digital economy. However, there is a great deal more that the sector and the Government can do.

The Government’s response to the Treasury Committee’s report will be published in the coming weeks. We will seek to address in detail all the recommendations that my right hon. Friend and her Committee made and outline the steps that we will take to build on the progress made on access to financial services. I thank the hon. Members who took part in the debate, and I thank my right hon. Friend for another interesting and rigorous report with insightful recommendations, on which I hope we can work together.