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Bank Branch Closures

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:54 pm, 18th March 2020

First, I congratulate Owen Thompson on bringing forward the debate—I think there has hardly been a banking debate that I have not been at. The Minister is always in his place to respond, and I am sure he knows what we will say before we say it and that he shares our frustration over bank closures. As I mentioned earlier, my constituency has seen one of the largest numbers of bank closures in the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There has been some attempt to fill the gap with credit unions and post offices, which have done so to a certain extent, but not in totality. That is where my concern lies.

I joined in the debate last June—we had another one a few weeks ago—to express my frustration with the banks that were closing branches because they say there is another one just 15 minutes up the road, or 50 minutes up the road, as Kirsten Oswald explained. That is not very helpful for people who are on their lunch break or reliant on public transport, which is not always available at the time that they need it to get them back to work, as she also suggested, especially in a rural constituency.

Physical branches are important to the consumer, but not to the bottom line, and it would seem that that is the only consideration for some of those at the top of the banks. How annoyed was I, last month, to find that yet another bank closure is planned for Newtownards, the main town in my constituency? This time it was Barclays. I got the obligatory email of intent, as we all do, and an offer to meet, going through the format of a visually arranged meeting. I have arranged it in my diary, by the way, and I will meet them, but the fact is that although the meeting might relieve some of my frustration, it will not make one button of a difference to Barclays.

I mean no disrespect—I try to be respectful to everyone as best I can—but I have no hope at all of persuading them to keep the Barclays bank in Newtownards open. I have sat in too many of those meetings, which is why I have become a bit cynical about meeting the banks. I think I have had some nine bank closures in total in my constituency. I have had a meeting with the banks on every one of those occasions, and with all the persuasion of stats and letters from customers that we had, we were not successful in turning things around.

As those branches have closed one by one, I have sat in too many of those meetings and been shown increases in online activity, as the hon. Lady mentioned. If we take the logic that she referred to, it is true that, if we close all the banks, more people will go online. But it does not suit everybody to go online—that is the point we are making, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. What is not explained is that the increase is because staff members have been pushing this, which they have. There is nothing wrong with pushing the online deal if it suits people, but it does not suit everybody, and the bank customers on whose behalf I went to all those meetings were not able to bank by logging on to the system. It is not always easy, either, when people do not have the broadband access to enable that to happen.

Over the years the bank closures in my constituency have been Kircubbin, Portaferry, Killyleagh and Ballynahinch—all Ulster BankDanske Bank in Kircubbin and Portaferry, Barclays bank now imminent, Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish. Those banks have all moved to other towns or moved out of the area completely. I remember when we used to have at least four banks on the Ards peninsula, but they have all been closed. There were some sub-banks, which would have been there on certain days a week, but they are away as well.

The hon. Member for Midlothian referred to credit unions, and we have been fortunate that credit unions have grown in my constituency, as they probably have in all our constituencies. They have tried to fill the gap, and they have done so to some extent, but they cannot provide what the banks offer to customers. We have a new credit union in Kircubbin; I am very pleased to see it, and it is very active and very able. The credit union in Portaferry has grown as the banks have closed, as has the credit union in Newtownards. I had the Minister over about a year and a half ago to visit the one in Newtownards, which is doing extremely well. The credit unions are filling the gap.

Then there are post offices. The Minister might say that post offices are able to fill the gap, and in some ways they are, but they cannot provide all the range of support and services that can be given in the banks. Post offices can only fill those in a small way. We need to have all the opportunities that the banks offer. I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the banks. I say that not as a socialist—