I echo the thanks to my hon. Friend Owen Thompson for securing this important debate. I feel as if I have spent quite a lot of time in the five years since I was elected bemoaning the stampeding of banks out of our communities without so much as a backward glance.
My constituency has several towns where there is no bank at all, and other Members have talked of similar issues. Ardrossan, Stevenston, Kilwinning—a town of 21,000 people—West Kilbride, Dalry and Beith are all without a bank, and Kilbirnie’s last bank has reduced its opening hours. That is the only bank left in the entire Garnock valley, which is three distinct towns with a collective population of more than 19,000 people. Losing the last bank in our towns is a severe blow to our communities. It undermines their commercial stability and has a significant social impact, which we have heard much about today.
My constituency, like that of every Member who has spoken, has been hit particularly hard, and I share all the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend Owen Thompson. In Scotland, according to research, we have lost more than one third of our bank branches since 2015. The consumer organisation Which? found that banks shut 396 Scottish branches between January 2015 and August 2019, reducing their number by 38%—an alarming rate of closure, by any measure. My hon. Friends the Members for Midlothian, for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) and Jim Shannon have all said similar things.
As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire, it is clear that any consultations are simply window dressing. They are tick-box exercises so that the banks can reassure themselves and the Minister—“Oh yes, Minister, we have undertaken consultation”—when we know that is not true in reality. I remember the same thing happening in 2007 and 2008, when there were mass post office closures in my constituency. That was long before I was elected to this place, and perhaps innocently—perhaps even naively—I, along with other Scottish National party activists, set up street stalls. We went door to door with petitions. We did everything we could to get the post office to reverse those closures, but of course nothing changed, because the consultations were not at all meaningful. We have memories of these consultations from other times, and I say to the Minister that this has to stop.
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 the least, a face-to-face banking solution, is still a vital component of the financial services sector, and must be preserved.”
I know that the Minister probably will not agree—I have said this to him before, during one of the countless debates on this topic I have participated in—but I genuinely believe that because there was no UK Government intervention when RBS announced its radical, eye-watering programme of closures, although we as taxpayers owned a significant stake in RBS, the fact that nothing was done emboldened the other banks that have no element of public ownership. If a publicly owned bank can do it, why can a private bank not do the same without any kickback or repercussions from those in the corridors of power?
If the Government are as willing as they have demonstrated to accept closures of bank branches—banks that they owned, in the case of RBS—that is extremely disappointing. Throughout RBS’s entire closure programme, I listened very hard, but I could not hear anybody in Government condemning those closures. All I heard was a distancing from any sense of responsibility, which is really disappointing for our constituents. It seems that other banks felt they could employ the same tactics and close down wherever they felt it was no longer convenient to have a branch, without any consequences or official condemnation from Government. As a result, the people who pay the price are those in our communities who are suffering for want of a bank, and will continue to suffer. We have heard a lot about that today.
Of course, we have these mobile banks, but they really do not answer the question of what we do without a bank. They are not disability compliant, their reliability is questionable at best, and they simply do not fit the bill or take the place of a bank. We also know that the gaps left by banks cannot be properly filled by post offices. That is no reflection on post offices, which work hard to provide a good service to our communities, but they are not banks and they cannot fill the gap. As the Minister will know, the Treasury Committee concluded that post offices
“should not be seen as a replacement for a branch network, but a complementary proposition”.
Other Members have talked about the fact that post offices simply cannot fill that gap.
Along with branch closures we are witnessing the demise of free cash machines, as we have heard. About 10 free-to-use ATMs a week have been shut down in the past year. As far as I can make out—although I hope the Minister will contradict me—the Treasury seems to have been deaf to all pleas for Government intervention to protect free cash. I hope that the Minister is able to offer some comfort today.