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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I thank Owen Thompson for securing this debate on an enduring concern across this Chamber and the House as a whole. I thank him for our conversation yesterday, following up on his question during business questions at the end of February. Since the start of this year, I have had conversations about similar matters with Jamie Stone and my hon. Friend Jason McCartney.
In the debate, I listened carefully to the speeches of the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds). In my remarks, I will address the points they made.
The hon. Member for Midlothian, in opening, referred to the current context. At this time, obviously, banks will operate using contingency plans. In the light of such circumstances, we expect them to consider what that means for their branch closure programmes.
Customer-facing financial services are undeniably changing, as consumers and businesses opt for the convenience, security and speed of digital payments and banking. In 2018, almost three quarters of UK adults used online banking, half mobile banking and two thirds contactless payments. Meanwhile, branch usage fell by 26%, on average, between 2012 and 2017, with many communities seeing even more drastic declines.
Banks clearly must balance changing customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when they consider their response. Many have proceeded in different ways. Sometimes they take the difficult decision to close branches in order to strike that balance. Although that is disappointing for communities, I have been clear that banks are best suited to know what works for their customers, and these must ultimately be commercial decisions.
That said, in January, I visited Yarm in Stockton to look at what Barclays is doing with its network. It has taken a group of more than 100 branches—102 or 112, I think—that are the last bank in their towns, and is working hard with the communities to secure a future. I encouraged it in that work, because models exist to sustain such branches, if transfers are made into that last bank. Barclays is optimistic about a large proportion of the cohort surviving for a significant time.
The Government cannot reverse changes in the market and in customer behaviour, and nor can we determine the commercial strategies of individual firms. I still believe that it is not for me in Westminster to decide the shape of a branch network or whether a bank should place a branch in Wolverhampton or Wick, but it is important that the impact of closures on communities is understood, considered and mitigated. I will set out some of the ongoing work in that area.
The access to banking standard is a key mechanism to ensure that customers are well informed about branch closures, and that banks set out their reasons for closure and the alternatives available to consumers. Since May 2017, the major high street banks have voluntarily signed up to the standard. However, I acknowledge that hon. Members have made representations to the effect that the application of the standard lacks transparency, is inconsistent and is insufficiently tailored to local conditions.
Last July, therefore, I met representatives of the Lending Standards Board and UK Finance, which enforce and own the standard, to discuss some of these concerns. As a result, they have agreed to two key improvements to the application of the standard. The first is agreement on a common definition of what constitutes an impacted customer when a branch closes, and the second is agreement on a number of common metrics to be used in impact assessments. Both of those will drive greater consistency of information among banks when they are closing branches.
In its recent annual report, the Lending Standards Board reported improved compliance with the standard among firms. It found that firms were providing more local information specific to the branches in question, and strengthening their relationships and engagement with the Post Office. In due course, the Lending Standards Board will publish examples of best practice to highlight positive approaches and provide a standard for under-performing firms to work towards.
Hon. Members will know the important role that the Post Office plays when branches close, and I have noted the comments of Patricia Gibson about the Treasury Committee’s report on this issue. I was therefore pleased by the successful renegotiation of the Post Office’s commercial agreement with the high street banks. That means that for the next three years at least, 99% of personal customers and 95% of small and medium-sized enterprise customers can continue with everyday banking at one of the UK’s 11,500 Post Office branches.
The agreement also ensures that local postmasters will see a considerable increase in fees for processing transactions, which will rise as volumes grow. I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point about this being a complementary activity; I do think we are on a journey when it comes to the functions that post offices can provide, because they clearly cannot provide face-to-face banking services. Those are being aggregated generally across the industry, but these are issues that the banking industry must come to terms with. I will say more about that in a minute.
Post Office figures from between 2018 and 2019 show that overall transactions increased by 15.5%, deposits increased by just under 40%, and withdrawals grew by 16%. Increased income from fees will help the post office network become more financially sustainable and will allow for investment in automation, training and security. As high street entities, post offices face similar challenges when it comes to footfall and the changing behaviour of customers.
Turning to the issue of access to cash, three in 10 payments in the UK are still made in cash, and the Government want to ensure that cash remains available for those who need it. That is why in last week’s Budget, the Chancellor announced that the Government will bring forward legislation to protect access to cash. We will work with regulators and stakeholders as we develop our approach, including with LINK, the Payment Systems Regulator, and people such as Natalie Ceeney, who carried out the “Access to Cash” review last year. That process will also involve stakeholders such as Which?, who have taken a great interest in this issue.
Improving digital access must be an equally important part of our response. The opportunities created by digital and online products should be open to all, which is why we established the digital skills partnership to bring together the public, private and third sectors to address the digital skills gap in a more co-ordinated and collaborative way. Of course, doing so depends on physical connectivity; some 98% of premises in the UK can access decent broadband, but there is more work to be done. That is why the Budget announced a £5 billion commitment to support the roll out of gigabit-capable broadband.
Mobile coverage is also important; as the Chancellor has announced, the shared rural network agreement has been finalised, which will involve an extra £510 million of funding from the Government. That means that 95% of the UK’s landmass will have that connectivity.
Last year, I concluded a Westminster Hall debate on this topic with a call to arms for the industry, which I reiterate and re-emphasise today. We cannot reverse digital innovation—nor should we, given the benefits it brings. However, this House can agree that vulnerable customers must not be left behind or locked out of opportunities. Government, regulators and industry are already acting to ensure cash remains available. I have just come off a call this afternoon in which I discussed mutual banks, credit union reform—which was also announced in the Budget—and hubs and cash access, which is something I am actively pursuing the banks about.
We must keep putting energy into digital inclusion, and not let the process of innovation run out of steam. I will be working with the industry and pushing it to go further. I value all the contributions that have been made today; they reinforce the energy that I will continue to bring to solving some of these difficult problems, which differ across the country.