Local Bank Closures — [Joan Ryan in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative, Stirling 3:20 pm, 12th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Douglas Ross, who gave an excellent speech, logically and rationally explaining a situation that we face in many parts of the United Kingdom but which, speaking parochially, is very much an issue for Scotland. If my hon. Friend Peter Aldous thinks that people look at him strangely when he uses cash in London, I encourage him to try using a Royal Bank of Scotland £20 note. Recently I was refused the opportunity to spend my money in London—an issue that I took up with WH Smith. I got a good apology, which is only appropriate.

Since I was elected to this House, I have been involved in many campaigns to fight unwanted and unnecessary branch closures. In my constituency, Balfron, Bannockburn, Bridge of Allan and St Ninians have no bank branches at all, owing to recent branch closures, and Callander is down to its last branch. When a town is down to its last bank and that bank is threatened with closure, I strongly believe that it is right for the Government to act—and I say that as a Conservative Member of Parliament.

We had an anomalous situation in Bridge of Allan, which may be of interest. Clydesdale Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland both closed their branches at the same time. Each bank justified its closure by citing the existence of the other branch. How ridiculous is that? They have now both closed leaving the people of Bridge of Allan without a bank branch, despite both banks stating that there would be one. That situation must not be allowed to happen. The Government must be prepared to act to remove that kind of justification, when two bank branches announce their closure at the same time. When Royal Bank of Scotland closed its Bannockburn branch, it justified it in terms of proximity to city centre premises—but guess what: it then moved those premises further from the customers. The branch in question happens to be very plush, but there are a few obstacles to getting there in the first place.

It is important that the consultation process that banks are required to go through should not just be a tick-box exercise. I am fearful that it is exactly that—a fait accompli from the point of announcement—and that any consultation is a completely pointless exercise. I might add that that could also be true when post office closures are announced. They are also, I think, nothing more than a tick-box exercise. I should like to hear from the Minister what the Government plan to do. I know him, and he is a very good fellow. There have been many representations, debates and speeches on the subject, and it is time for the Government to produce some kind of policy initiative, to do something about it.

The Treasury Committee has been referred to, and post offices are not a fair substitute for a branch of a bank. It is very unfair: many sub-postmasters in my constituency do not have the facilities or resources to become an alternative to the bank branch that once existed next door to them, or on the same street. It is not fair on the customers, or on the community that those branches served.

Another suggestion that has been made—and it is a fair one—concerns banking hubs. I strongly believe—as, I say again, a Conservative—that the banks should be encouraged, and perhaps more than encouraged, in the light of the earlier reference to carrots and sticks, to come together and fund the creation of a community banking hub. Perhaps that could be done in conjunction with the Post Office, but I do not think that just taking a laissez-faire approach to the facilities will hack it. The banks have said that the Post Office should be encouraged to take up the slack, and they have said they will support local post offices, but I asked one postmaster in my constituency what support the bank gave him when it moved out of town. He said, “I got a bundle of leaflets, so I could put them out on my counter.” That was the sum total of the support.

When bank branches are closed and the community is told that the banks will support it through local post offices, what is the mechanism for delivering that support? What positive encouragement is there for the bank to deliver on that? What will the Government do about the situations that I describe? Is it not time we came up with a policy to deal with the situation? I hope that the Minister will be able to describe fully what the Treasury will do—because this is not any old Minister of the Crown replying to the debate: he is a Treasury Minister, so we have great expectations. We need radical ideas now to make sure that vital banking and community services will be available across the villages and towns of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. The Government have a role in enabling and supporting that, and a responsibility to do so. I urge them to do it.

I cannot sit down without mentioning the people of Dunblane, who were told they would have a mobile banking service for a few minutes every other week. That is not a replacement for a bank facility. However, it is the kind of support and recompense that communities have been offered by banks that have deserted them, although the people of this country were not slow to step up to the mark and bail them out of the mess they had made. My colleagues and I will not forget that in a hurry.