It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and I thank my hon. Friend Douglas Ross for securing this important debate.
It is all very well for the banks to say that people are required to move with the times, but there is a generation out there who came through school having been taught mental arithmetic, not IT skills. Not all members of that generation will be fortunate enough to have children and grandchildren fluent in IT speak, with a knowledge of apps and so on, to act as trusted advisers and able to direct them through the technological maze. Not all have good memories for the passwords required, and it is a regrettable fact of life that our faculties fail us with age. I am testament to that.
On a brighter note, I congratulate staff and pupils at Kyle Academy in Ayr in my constituency, whose pupils are learning about cyber-crime and passing on that skill to others, including small businesses and the elderly in the Ayr community. I congratulate them.
Online is a modern maze where, on occasion, even the most skilled might fall victim to scams. At a rural crime event in my constituency, it was highlighted how a farmer had been scammed when purchasing and paying via an online bank account for expensive agricultural equipment. Might it have been different had there been a bank branch open to conduct that business? The banks and the Government need to instil confidence in the user of digital banking services, whether that is in relation to the availability and basic reliability of the internet in the first place, or protection from the cruel, heartless scammers who appear to be able to read bank cards or secure an individual’s bank details. Is it any surprise that, until the banks and Governments robustly and timeously minimise, if not eradicate, those known risks, the public will remain averse to bank closures and feel that they are being pressured to move online?
The banks place great emphasis on the fact that shared facilities exist through post offices by virtue of the Post Office banking framework, which is an agreement with around 28 high street banks, supported by the Government. However, stand-alone post offices are virtually a thing of the past as well. Most are incorporated into stores and, again, privacy is often an issue. Worryingly, some postmasters have contacted me, and I am sure many others throughout the UK, regarding the profitability of their business being driven down by the Post Office itself. Thankfully, the Post Office has been listening and in October we should see changes that afford greater support to sub-postmasters, which is to be welcomed.
I am delighted that a bank—the TSB, I believe—in the seaside town of Girvan has survived the closures, having stated that it was determined to make significant efforts to keep branches with low footfall open by reducing opening hours. A face-to-face presence remains, at least for the time being. Perhaps that is a model worth considering. On the negative side, the nearby village of Dailly no longer has a visit from the mobile bank, which appeared there for a couple of hours a week. I understand the Government acknowledge the valuable role of credit unions. However, I have constituents who remain aggrieved that banks are permitted to provide services through post offices while credit unions are not permitted to co-locate with post offices. Hopefully, the Minister will be able to review that somewhat restrictive practice.
The Government refer to the access to banking standard and have said that the decision to close a branch is a commercial decision for the management team of the bank, and the long-time policy of successive Governments has been not to intervene. Yet Members will remember that in 2008 the Government of the day chose to intervene when banks’ management decisions nearly brought the banks to their knees, so why not consider their stance and intervene now to extend the presence of the last bank in town?
It is very important that we endeavour to avoid financial exclusion and age discrimination. We still see ATMs and Link is working on initiatives to preserve access to cash, despite the reduction in the use of cash by some groups in society, but, as has been said, for those living on a pension, benefits or lower incomes, dealing in cash sometimes makes financial management easier. Too often, tapping a card or entering a four-digit pin number fails to register in the mind of the purchaser the actual spend building up until it is too late and they are plunged into unaffordable debt.
Will the Minister assure us that personal customers—particularly, although not exclusively, the elderly—and small businesses will not be prejudiced by the continuing bank branch closures and that choosing to use internet banking will be better protected from the impact of cyber-crime?