It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate Douglas Ross on having secured it. While I am always pleased to support any debate that the hon. Gentleman secures, I have a deep interest in this particular topic.
I used to come to these debates and talk about my rural areas and social isolation. As I did that, bankers nodded at me, all the while pushing on with their plans to close rural banks, which succeeded. The last banks in the Ards peninsula in my constituency closed over a year ago, although to give a bit of credit to Ulster bank, I highlight the fact that it provided a mobile bank and a customer adviser on a weekly basis. That has been useful, so some of the banks—one of the banks, anyway—took the opportunity to do something.
These closures mean that much of my constituency has no local branch. When that is paired with the fact that some areas of the peninsula are using dial-up internet, the isolation becomes incredibly clear. However, according to the banks, the numbers did not tally, and the customers could be relocated to another branch—how frustrating it was to watch that. It was fine until the closures started hitting the main town, Newtownards, which has a population of some 30,000 and serves the Ards peninsula. We saw the First Trust bank close, as well as the Bank of Ireland branch. Someone from Portaferry, some 30 miles down the road, has to travel to Bangor or Belfast simply to speak to their local bank.
I thank God for Danske bank, Ulster bank, Santander and Nationwide, which have carried out enhancements to their Newtownards branches. Those enhancements show their dedication to the local area, and I highlight them to anyone who asks me about those banks. I much prefer to work and do business with those who are prepared to have a local branch, paying rents and providing a service. Most people now are doing things online, which is phenomenal for the people whose lives are made easier by doing a lot online. My parliamentary aide is at that all the time—she is always on the app, moving her money around to cover bills, which is great—but at lunch time she goes down to Nationwide to lodge money in the children’s accounts; she has access to the banks and can do transactions there. How much more is this a case of enforced technology for people my age or older?
I will give Members a real example: in the six months before the consultation on closing one of the banks in Newtownards, a staff member had been designated to stand in front of the counter and ask people in the queue if they could help get them online and do their transactions online for them. The bank then raved about the uptake of online banking. That is a slight false economy when a staff member had to stand patiently with the customer, who got to jump the queue and get what they wanted if they had talked to that staff member. In addition, the banks began to say, “We have to charge a fee, but if you do it online yourself, it is free.” Explaining all that to the customer took longer than carrying out the transaction would have done, but that would not provide the same excuse to say that the branch had become obsolete.
I read a story in the paper at the weekend, which is a true story. I am rather loath to use the bank’s name, although anyone who reads The Mail on Sunday can find out which bank it was. The headline states:
“As banks continue to axe branches around Britain and force firms to go cashless, this furious baker—” who is one of the bank’s customers; not a banker, but a baker—says that her bank
“‘talked me into a pricey card reader…then shut down my branch’”.
Wow! Listen to this one: she pays £39 a month for a debit card reader, and 1.85% of every transaction goes to the bank. If cash disappears, there is a danger that contactless card payment fees will soar. That is the bottom line and the unwritten rule: whenever they get control of your assets, they will screw you a wee bit more.
The next one comes from a lady in a village—this is an absolute cracker. Her bank boasts that it is “by your side”. It was so much by this person’s side that it closed down her branch last year. That illustrates what the issues are.
I have constituents who do not know how to, or have the facilities to, carry out their banking online, and even those who do still frequent their bank regularly. People need that service and pay for that service; that must be the priority, not simply giving shareholders a bigger dividend. No one expects the banks to be charities, but providing a service to those who pay is not being charitable. Let us bring back the banks, the local branch manager and the forgotten ideal of being part of a local community. That is what banks should be, and very often now they are not.