It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Owen Thompson for securing this important debate. Like him, I have a sense of déjà vu, having spoken in similar debates a number of times before.
I am aware of the very serious situation that we are dealing with. People at home will be watching and thinking about the difficulties that the covid-19 crisis presents us. We are well aware of that, and I encourage people to follow the most up-to-date advice at every point. Bank closures is quite a pertinent issue at the moment. This is not quite the speech I might have given under different circumstances, but it is possibly even more pressing that banks do not abandon our high streets—goodness knows, they have troubles enough without banks upping sticks and leaving behind all the businesses that are struggling so much.
I am really scunnered on behalf of my constituents; there have been repeated bank closures in towns all over East Renfrewshire over the past few years. When I served a previous term as MP, East Renfrewshire was apparently one of the worst hit areas for bank branch closures, yet here I am again because more closures are planned. When MPs and members of the public are notified of bank closures, there is no acceptance or acknowledgement of the actual impact on local residents and businesses. There is no consultation; it just hard lines, and that makes a difference to people’s lives.
Knowing that I would speak in this debate, somebody told me that after the closure of a bank branch of which they were a customer in East Renfrewshire, they got some text messages asking what they thought about bank branch closures. They could only click the boxes provided—there was no free text option for whatever reason—and the options, to paraphrase, were, “They’re good,” “They’re fine,” and “They’re okay”. They are not okay. That kind of ridiculous box-ticking exercise really does not give people any comfort that they are being listened to, and will come as no surprise to any Member of the House who has had to deal with bank closures. It feels as if there is a disregard for the needs of our communities and often of basic geography.
In East Renfrewshire, we face three additional closures, which is the last thing that people need. According to Virgin Money, it is closing the Giffnock branch because it is shutting up shop in locations where it has duplicate provision. The difficulty is that there is no duplicate provision in Giffnock because Virgin Money closed the other branch three years ago—it is now a bistro, which I wish every success, and which I am sure could use the support of a local bank. Virgin has suggested that people affected by the closure in Giffnock can use the bank in Newton Mearns. The implication was that Newton Mearns is the same as Giffnock, but they are different towns. I wondered, “How might people get there? They could go on the bus.” I checked, and it is a 50-minute round trip on the bus. That is really not a practical solution or a sensible way for people to be told to proceed.
TSB is closing branches in Barrhead and Clarkston. To my surprise, TSB suggested that customers who used the Barrhead branch could use the one in Pollok. That is a round trip of at least an hour by public transport. I can only assume that TSB does not want those customers to remain its customers and anticipates that they will all march across the road to the first-class credit union in Barrhead, Pioneer Mutual, which I have no doubt will not abandon the people of Barrhead and will continue to provide the wide range of fantastic services for which we are grateful.
TSB suggests that when its Clarkston branch closes, people can go to Thornliebank, but they would need to take the half-hourly train or the hourly bus. None of those things are what people need. It is unhelpful in the extreme for banks to suggest that those are somehow substitutions. Like when someone orders teabags in their online shop and the supermarket sends a dishcloth, the solutions are absolutely ludicrous and really quite upsetting to people who are accustomed to banking locally.
The people who need the service most are always the worst affected, as my hon. Friend said. Among them are older people, who are accustomed to dealing in cash and who should not be prevented from doing so; people who are less mobile; people who do not have cars; and of course local businesses, which absolutely rely on high-street banking services. People who run local businesses are genuinely concerned about bank closures, which make a significant difference to what they can do.
As my hon. Friend said, despite the significant difficulties that businesses currently face, they are doing great things, such as delivering things to people and being flexible in their services. They are going above and beyond and being imaginative in the way that they do business, so this is the very time when they need an assurance that the banks are there and will still be there afterwards. They need the banks upping sticks like they need a hole in the head.
Businesses will rely on Government support in the coming weeks and months—that will be so important. If we hope—and we do—that our businesses find ways to sustain themselves, surely that necessitates the availability of banks so that discussions and banking can take place in communities where those businesses are rooted. The Government stepped up when we bailed out the banks, so now it is their turn.
Banks and bank bosses need to step up and recognise that the situation is unique. This is the time for them to reconsider any plans to close bank branches and to think about what they are really for and whether they should be turning away from our constituents. They should not be turning away from our high streets now. We need them to be with us when things are difficult; now is certainly not the time for them to walk away.