Local Bank Closures — [Joan Ryan in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:26 pm on 12th June 2019.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 3:26 pm, 12th June 2019

I thank Douglas Ross for bringing this important debate forward. Moments of agreement are rare, so when they happen they should be celebrated in a mighty fashion—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—although the debate is not over yet.

I feel that I spend half my time in this place—I do not exaggerate and I know that others will share this view—bemoaning the stampede of banks out of our communities without so much as a backward glance. I represent a constituency where several towns have no bank at all. They are Ardrossan, Stevenston, Kilwinning—a town of 21,000 people—West Kilbride, Dalry and Beith. Kilbirnie’s last bank is having its opening hours reduced, and that is the only bank left in the entire Garnock valley, where there are three distinct towns with a collective population of more than 19,000 people.

My constituency has been hit particularly hard, so I fully appreciate the similar concerns expressed by the hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). In Scotland we have lost one third of our bank branches in just eight years. Research from Which? has shown that 610 branches closed across Scotland between 2010 and 2018. The recent Santander announcement of closures is the latest in a long line of such announcements from banks across the board.

The hon. Member for Stirling talked about consultation on bank closures being a tick-box exercise, and that is true. I remember the same thing happening in 2007-08 when there were, in my constituency anyway, mass post office closures. Perhaps naively and innocently—this was long before I was elected to this place—we had street stalls and went door to door with petitions to move the banks and Post Office, but nothing changed.

This has to stop. The Minister will be aware that the Treasury Committee concluded that

“there are still large sections of society who rely on bank branches to carry out their banking needs. A bank branch network, or at least a face-to-face banking solution, is still a vital component of the financial services sector, and must be preserved.”

The Minister will probably not agree, but I genuinely believe this: there was no UK Government intervention when RBS, which was owned by us, the taxpayers, announced a significant—eye-watering—closure programme, and I believe that the fact that nothing was done emboldened other banks, with no element of public ownership, in their closure programmes.

If the Government were willing to accept the closure of RBS branches, which they owned on behalf of the taxpayer—I listened carefully but did not hear them condemning those closures—then closing local branches seems to have been an option that other banks could employ almost without consequence. As a result, communities have suffered for want of a bank, and they continue to do so—we have heard much about that today. Mobile banks are not disability compliant, and their reliability is questionable at best.

The Government said that they could not intervene in the RBS closure programme—as the Minister will know, that rankled with many of us—and they insisted on leaving all operational decisions to RBS throughout the closure programme. As my hon. Friend Marion Fellows pointed out, the Government apparently pressured RBS to pull finance from customers through the asset protection scheme. If the Government had tried to use whatever influence they could in the original RBS closure programme, I am curious to consider what effect that might have had. Would we still be where we are now? I think we might not be.

RBS is not the only bank to have closed branches, but it has certainly emboldened the others. As the hon. Member for Moray set out, the gaps left by banks cannot properly be filled by post offices, regardless of what we have been told. The Treasury Committee concluded that post offices

“should not be seen as a replacement for a branch network, but as a complementary proposition”,

and we have heard similar sentiments from every Member in today’s debate.

Over the past two years, I have corresponded with the UK Government and Post Office Ltd about the poor rates of pay for postmasters, and I am delighted that some action has been taken. We cannot have a situation where banks abandon our towns and the provision of some banking services is carried out by post offices, but those post offices are not properly paid by banks, which then rake in huge profits while some postmasters do not even earn the minimum wage—the hon. Members for Stirling, for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw also made that point. Such a situation is simply not acceptable.

We are witnessing the demise of free cash machines—3,000 in the past 18 months across the UK—and 32 free cash machines a month are closing in Scotland. There is a stampede to charge people to use cash machines. The ATM Industry Association has warned that one fifth of Scotland’s free ATMs will start charging consumers in the next year, which can only be seen as a cynical move to force us to become a cashless society.

Just as bank closures have, in my view, been a tool to force people to bank online, so are banks now cutting the fees that they are willing to pay machine operators to provide bank customers with access to cash. Banks are attempting to put pressure on customers who are not acting in a way that they find convenient. What happened to the customer being king? Going cashless and banking online is the preferred option for some, but although some of us do not wish to go down that route, there are increasingly aggressive efforts to force us to do so at breakneck speed, as Peter Aldous pointed out. I and my constituents who do not favour those options will not be forced to do that—Jim Shannon also made that point—and we will not be bullied into going cashless and digital. In any case, those options are not available to some people for a variety of reasons.

We need to move from a commercial model of access to cash to having a more utility approach, and keep cash sustainable for longer. Our cash infrastructure matters, and we cannot sleepwalk into a cashless society without serious consequences for many of our constituents and small businesses, which already face challenges if they are unable to bank takings or customers cannot access cash in order to shop on their premises. Not everybody has a debit card; as John Lamont said, not every small business is equipped to take plastic. This issue therefore affects the footfall and sustainability of those small businesses.

I have corresponded with the Minister, and he accepted that broadband access is not good enough for everyone to rely on digital banking. I know he wants more banking services to be provided by post offices, but that is not the issue at hand. The Government, and the Access to Banking standard, must ensure that banks have a social responsibility to provide banking facilities to all our towns. Such services could be provided relatively easily through banking hubs, and there is no discernible obstacle to that option except—I am sure the Minister will correct me if he thinks I am wrong—a lack of political will, and the arrogance and intransigence of the banking industry. Our communities and constituents deserve better. Banks must face up to their social responsibilities and get their heads together to create banking hubs. There is no real impediment to that, and it is what customers want.

I urge the Minister to use his good offices to bang some banking heads together and ensure that their customers’ voices are heard. The Government have a role to play when the last bank in a town is closed. The Government have said repeatedly that these are commercial decisions, but this is not just a commercial matter. This is about social responsibility and financial inclusion, and I urge the Minister to reflect further on the strong feelings and concerns expressed today. Will he consider legislative proposals to ensure that our banks live up to their responsibilities to our communities?