It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Douglas Ross on securing the debate. It provides me with an opportunity to review the position just over a year since the last bank branch closed in the market town of Bungay in my constituency, where there had been a bank branch since 1808 when Gurney’s, the predecessor of Barclays, opened one of its first branches.
Looking back over the past year, I shall highlight three issues. The first is the pace of change in the transition to what I would term an almost cashless society, which has been much quicker than anticipated. Very often when I am in a queue for a sandwich or a newspaper, I feel self-conscious as I get out my wallet. Invariably, particularly in London, I am the only person paying by cash, and I sense that eyes are gazing at me with a sense of bemusement. The transition is happening much quicker in metropolitan areas than in market towns and the countryside. The breakneck pace of change causes difficulties for the elderly, the disabled and, particularly, those on low incomes for whom cash provides the best means of managing a very tight budget.
Secondly, having ready access to cash is the main challenge that has arisen out of the Lloyds bank closure in Bungay last May. There are no longer 24/7 cashpoints available in the town centre. There is a cashpoint in the post office, but it is not accessible all the time, and when the extremely popular Sunday street fairs take place, there is a major drawback for traders without card machines.
It is also appropriate to highlight the emergence of a postcode lottery along the Suffolk-Norfolk border. In Bungay, there are no 24/7 cashpoints. Likewise, 9 miles away in Halesworth in the constituency of my hon. Friend Dr Coffey, there are no such facilities. However, if I go 8 miles west to Harleston, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr Bacon, there are three such cashpoints within 100 metres of each other.
That revolution is happening when high streets and town centres are under pressure and face the challenge of reinventing themselves. For that to be done successfully, it is important that business should not unwittingly be diverted elsewhere. Bungay and towns like it serve a large rural hinterland, from where many residents, once a week, come into the town to shop, go to the bank and socialise over a coffee or a meal. Take away the bank and they might go to another market town instead. To adopt the practice of King Canute and try to stop the change would, I sense, be futile, but we can manage that change properly, so that the vulnerable are not compromised and towns such as Bungay can compete on a level playing field with their neighbours.