Bank Closures: Stoke-on-Trent North

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 14 June 2023.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 11:00, 14 June 2023

I will call Jonathan Gullis to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. As this is a 30-minute debate, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered bank closures in Stoke-on-Trent North constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for permitting the debate, and I thank right hon. and hon. Friends, including the Minister, for attending. There is one Member who would like to be here—my hon. Friend Aaron Bell, whose constituency is also suffering a closure—and he is hoping to join us later, and I place on the record my thanks for my hon. Friend’s support.

Banks are at the very heart of local communities, and they provide the most vulnerable people in society with vital services and support with their money. Banks have been at the centre of high streets up and down this great country for generations, drawing people to the local area, which has the added benefit of increasing footfall for local businesses. In Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, we have a Lloyds in Tunstall and a Barclays in Kidsgrove, but constituents tell me that they feel there is already a significant lack of access to in-person banking services, which impacts the most vulnerable in our communities—the elderly and the disabled—disproportionately.

According to Which?, 86% of banks have closed in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke since 2015, which in my opinion justifies my constituents’ concerns. At the national level too, there has been a significant number of closures: between June 2015 and January 2023, 5,391 bank branches closed in the United Kingdom, which is a shocking 54 per month. This year, regrettably, the pace of closure has not relented, with 114 HSBC, 95 Barclays, 52 NatWest and 23 Lloyds branches closing their doors, leaving gaping holes in local high streets and local communities.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this matter forward. My constituency has had 11 banks close, which is similar to the experience in Stoke. When it comes to closing banks and the effect that has, does he agree that there never seems to be any consideration given to elderly people who depend on the old system of using cash and cheque books, face-to-face interviews and talking with bank staff?

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right not only about the elderly, but about people who do not have online access, or have no desire to have it, or who do not understand the modern technology about which we have the benefit of learning in this day and age. Such people have a natural mistrust of online banking because they are fearful of scammers and the online hoaxes that have sadly become all too apparent in our criminal justice system. If the Barclays closure goes ahead, Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke will be left with just one high street bank, which is simply not good enough.

I am pleased to have secured the debate given the terrible news that Barclays has announced its intention to close the Kidsgrove branch on 11 August. That decision will leave that great town without a single bank and leave the community isolated from vital in-person banking services, which provide local people with reassurance and confidence with respect to their money, particularly during a cost of living crisis.

It is right to point out that digitalisation has transformed the way that families and businesses deposit, withdraw and save their money, and in Stoke-on-Trent we have been rolling out brand-new 5G broadband, which is increasing our connectivity, and which will undoubtedly make online banking more effective. The digital revolution means that banks are innovating, and Barclays points out in its argument for closing the branch that

“the way people bank today is unrecognisable from 50 years ago”.

However, it is of paramount importance that we do not let digitalisation exclude people in our community from banking services.

The services that bank branches provide are most important for vulnerable members of society, and closures impact them the most. One of my constituents, Dawn from Kidsgrove, told me that her father, who is an elderly customer, would find it “impossible” to travel to Crewe or to Hanley to visit a Barclays branch, that his deafness means he cannot use telephone banking, and that he is not confident enough to use internet banking.

As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury pointed out in the 2020 access to cash call for evidence:

“exclusion from banking services can have a detrimental impact on people’s lives. Whilst card payments and other payments services are becoming increasingly popular, the evidence shows that a significant proportion of the UK population continues to rely on cash in their day to day lives.”

The Financial Conduct Authority states that banks are expected to carefully consider the impact of planned branch closures on the everyday banking and cash access needs of their customers, and to take particular care for their most vulnerable customers.

I have launched a petition to save Barclays branch from closure, and it has nearly 450 signatures already. That shows the strength of local feeling that Barclays is not upholding its responsibility to look after its most vulnerable customers.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We are also facing the closure of a Barclays branch in Wombourne, which is going to have a devastating impact on the village, and on the access to banking facilities for many elderly people, as well as for businesses. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is time for Barclays to rethink? It is often the last bank in town, and we need that in order for our communities to thrive.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

My right hon. Friend and Staffordshire colleague has been a fantastic champion for that great country for many years. He is entirely correct that there needs to be a rethink. It is starting to feel, albeit unintentionally, like Barclays has something personal against Staffordshire, with Kidsgrove, Newcastle-under-Lyme and Wombourne all facing branch closures. This has not been well thought through, particularly as residents may have to travel to Crewe or Hanley. That is not an easy journey for the constituents of my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson, as I am sure public transport connectivity is not what he would desire.

A journey to Crewe is a significant one even from the place I am proud to serve, particularly if households do not own a vehicle and rely on public transport that is not well connected to the surrounding north Staffordshire area and the Cheshire boundary. I hope that common sense will prevail here, and that Barclays will engage with my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and myself to talk about what can be done to help protect its customers in these difficult times.

One of my constituents, Ms Green, told me that

“many disabled people and pensioners will suffer”.

That makes me question whether Barclays is even complying with the FCA’s guidance. Crucially, 40% of over-65s—over 4 million people—do not manage their money online. That is because online banking is difficult to navigate and automatic telephone responses are monotonous and impersonal. A constituent wrote to me to say that they found telephone banking

“confusing and difficult to hear.”

A recent survey by Accenture illustrates that point, finding that 44% of over-55s would rather visit their branch. It also showed that in-person banking was also popular among over 20% of younger people.

Alongside the impact the branch closure will have on vulnerable people, it is impossible to underestimate the financial security implications of a lack of in-person banking. Since Barclays announced its closures, I have been inundated with correspondence from local people outraged that Kidsgrove is losing its last remaining bank. One constituent told me that they are “appalled” at the announcement, and that it will put the elderly

“at greater risk of getting scammed.”

Dr Daniel Tischer of the University of Bristol noted that,

“the danger of mass cyber-attacks... looms ominously”.

He also noted that there is a genuine risk of cyber-crime, scams and fraud. I am certain that the precedent set by bank closures will put people at greater risk, especially the most vulnerable in our society, who lack the digital awareness younger people have to spot clear signs of illicit financial activity. For those people, in-person banking with specialist advisers is crucial. By closing the branch, Barclays is putting people whom it has an obligation to support and protect at a much greater risk.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I apologise for being a little late. I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on his campaign for the Kidsgrove Barclays branch. As he knows, Barclays has closed the branch in Newcastle-under-Lyme as well, and I too have been inundated with correspondence. My constituents have the option to switch, and I am encouraging them to do so. That option is there because of Government measures that were put in place to make switching easier. My hon. Friend is a superb champion for the people of Kidsgrove in the north of the borough, but they do not have the option to switch. Barclays should think again about both closures—but especially about his.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign and petition, and on guiding those customers of Barclays to other local banking providers that are proudly remaining in the centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme. It is a shame that the decision was made to close both the Kidsgrove and the Newcastle-under-Lyme branches within a two-week period. Ultimately, had a decision been made just on Kidsgrove, at least there would have been some justification for residents of Kidsgrove, Talke and Newchapel to go to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hanley or Crewe—but Barclays took both branches out.

Local transport is not necessarily the best and not everyone has access to a motor vehicle. The longer journeys make in-person banking services simply not accessible for many. It is therefore wholly appropriate that customers vote with their feet and that people are made aware. There is a Lloyds bank branch available in Tunstall and there are other banking providers in my hon. Friend’s local town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I will join him in directing customers to places where they can still access that face-to-face service within a five-mile radius of where they live. My constituent Ms Birchall told me that she feels that older generations are being marginalised. Barclays’ decision undermines its commitments to the Financial Conduct Authority’s guidelines, and it does not do enough to care for the most vulnerable, as the closure clearly increases their exposure to fraud.

Small and medium-sized businesses rely on local banking services to deposit their cash and rely on in-person infrastructure to deposit their earnings and savings. One local business owner told me that they were devastated by the proposed closure of Barclays in Kidsgrove. They said that the queues are so long because some customers had difficulties in using online facilities, and that it will now be far more difficult for those businesses to deposit their cash and earnings, especially after NatWest, TSB and Britannia’s closures.

Not only will Barclays’ decision to close its branch have an impact on local businesses that use the local bank’s services, but the closure may drive people away from the local high street. Over the past 10 years, 10,000 shops, 6,000 pubs, 7,500 banks and more than 1,100 libraries have closed. The impact of closures has been felt especially in areas such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Without doubt, the covid pandemic exacerbated some of the problems local high streets face, with more people than ever before turning to online shopping. Local bank branches incentivise people to visit high streets, with constituents telling me they shop, eat and drink after going to the bank. If the local branch goes, people will be less likely to visit small businesses and help the local economy to grow.

I am passionate about fighting for the health and vitality of the local high streets I am proud to serve. They are the focal point of local communities and a source of immense civic pride. That is especially true in Kidsgrove. With the £17.6 million Kidsgrove town deal—a once-in-a-generation investment in our local community— the new BMX pump track at Newchapel Rec, the 3G astroturf pitches at The King’s Church of England Academy, the newly reopened Kidsgrove Sports Centre and the plans for the shared services hub in the town centre, as well as investment in Kidsgrove railway station, we are attracting more outsiders to visit our local area.

I accept that digitalisation is transforming the way we access banking, but we should do more to explore how we can incorporate banking hubs into our system and into local communities, such as in Kidsgrove. Banking hubs are shared services where customers from almost any bank can visit their local post office and withdraw cash from the counter. Both the Access to Cash action group—CAG—and LINK argue that banking hubs are extremely popular, and their use has doubled since they opened. However, we need to roll out far more of those hubs more widely if they are to negate the demonstrable impact of bank branch closures.

Shared service banking hubs have the potential to be highly valued facilities at the centre of a thriving town centre. I am certain that having banking hubs with specialist advisers from all major banks present in a new and permanent feature on our high street, such as the shared services hub in Kidsgrove we propose to build in the not-too-distant future, would go a long way to not only delivering on the levelling-up agenda that is so important to my constituents, but giving them the reassurance they rightly deserve about having that access.

The Barclays bank closure in Kidsgrove threatens to limit the local community’s access to cash. More than 10 million adults in the UK need access to cash, and this is especially pressing since our most vulnerable constituents rely on cash more and more for things such as budgeting. The independent 2018 access to cash review found that as many as 8 million adults would find a cashless society difficult, and Barclays’ decision to close its branch in Kidsgrove will exclude many people in the local community even more from getting the cash they need to get by on every day.

The impact of irresponsible closures of local bank branches is exacerbated by the decline in the total number of ATMs. A report by Which? found that between January 2018 and September 2019, the number of free-to-use ATMs went down from 54,500 to 47,500, representing a 13% reduction in the size of the free network. As of 2023, there are 3,431 ATMs in the west midlands. The great town of Burslem was the first in the UK with a population of more than 20,000 without either a bank branch or an ATM. We tested an access to cash scheme run by Sonect in Burslem in 2021. While the pilot found that local people were largely supportive of the cashback services in convenience stores, the free educational services offered over a significant period, aimed at people with poor digital skills, were deeply unpopular and failed to give people the confidence to transition to online banking.

It is undeniable that Barclays’ decision to close its branch in Kidsgrove will leave a gaping hole in our local community, but I want to take the time to point out the measures that Barclays is taking to help the community transition. Barclays has assured me that face-to-face banking continues to play an important role for some of its customers in Kidsgrove through a continued presence in the community via new alternative physical touchpoints in retail outlets and community spaces. I believe that one is planned for the local library. Barclays is introducing specific, targeted support for vulnerable and elderly customers who have been identified as needing additional help. The offering includes one-to-one “tea and teach” sessions to support digital skills capabilities, alongside sharing the services available at the nearby post office and, in due course, at the alternative community banking presence we are seeking to put in place.

Yesterday, Barclays informed me that it will have a team at Kidsgrove Sports Centre for three days a week, offering face-to-face financial support on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. However, that fails to match the services offered from its traditional branch and, crucially, the access to cash pilot in Burslem demonstrated that the educational services were deeply unpopular, with low attendance figures. As such, I am sceptical of the precautions that Barclays has put in place to support local people in the community in Kidsgrove to transition from a physical branch.

Bank closures have a demonstrable impact on local communities like Kidsgrove. My constituent, Ms Leake, wrote to me saying that her mother visits the branch religiously, and I know that Ms Leake’s mother is not alone. As we have discussed today, the closures have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable in our society, with the elderly and disabled facing financial exclusion, as it is far harder for them to use online banking services or travel further afield. Leaving Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke with just one bank on the high street will also put my constituents at greater risk of fraud. Lack of access to in-person banking will put more people at risk of cyber-crime and, once again, the impact will be felt more by our most vulnerable constituents.

Bank closures also disincentivise people from visiting high streets in places like Kidsgrove, which will lead to decreased footfall and have a knock-on impact on small businesses. Banks are at the very heart of communities, and we need to explore how we can expand banking hubs more widely to ensure that people still visit the high street.

With more than 10 million people in the UK needing regular access to cash, further bank closures such as those we are seeing in Kidsgrove exclude my constituents from their money. Given that those from disadvantaged backgrounds rely more heavily on cash, Barclays’ decision impacts our most vulnerable constituents. Ultimately, we need banks in our local communities, and the people who make communities like Kidsgrove great need banks. I urge the Minister to do whatever he can to support areas like Kidsgrove to keep banks on their high streets, as they are so important for economic vitality and as a focal point of support for our most vulnerable constituents.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 11:17, 14 June 2023

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis on securing this debate on a very grave matter that faces his constituents and many others across the country. I thank Jim Shannon, my right hon. Friend Sir Gavin Williamson and my hon. Friend Aaron Bell for their contributions, which shows the depth of concern about this significant change.

There is strong feeling here. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North talked about his incredible 450-strong petition from local residents, which demonstrates the real concern of people in Kidsgrove, as well as his formidable capability in representing them and bringing the issue to the national stage. As a fellow local Member of Parliament, I have also focused on helping small high streets in my constituency. I understand the real concern that when an amenity such as a local bank branch closes, there is more jeopardy for the high street. My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight that. It is a credit to him and to Members who have supported him that he has secured that commitment from Barclays for a Barclays Local, which will be just a three-minute walk away from the current branch, offering the face-to-face service that people value so much, three days a week at Kidsgrove Sports Centre. That comes on top of the three free-to-use ATMs at which his constituents will continue to have free access to their cash, and the Post Office, which is doing a valiant job. As consumer patterns change, we often see the Post Office stepping in, and that is one of the things underpinning the continued fortunes of our post office network.

Although it is uncomfortable and difficult, we are seeing a very rapid change in consumer patterns. Local bank branches across the nation are getting fewer and fewer visitors. That does not mean that face-to-face banking is not vital, which is why there are so many regulations in place, administered by the FCA. It is also why it is so important that we all remain vigilant to ensure that the FCA does its job of challenging and pushing back when communities such as Kidsgrove are threatened by the loss of a bank branch, and why it is imperative that adequate alternatives are in place. I fall short of the Government stepping in and making commercial decisions for firms, and I think Members broadly understand why that might be the case.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

My hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis set out the interesting idea of hubs working together, which is already being trialled. The Minister rightly says that there is commercial pressure on banks, and they are looking at a different model, but Government have a great ability to act as a convening power, bringing the major high street banks together to look at how they can co-operate and work together to ensure that communities such as those in Kidsgrove, Wombourne and Newcastle-under-Lyme are not excluded.

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

My right hon. Friend, who exercised his great convening power and delivered great service to the nation, makes a very good point. This agenda is never far from my mind. Only last week, I visited the new banking hub in Acton to see how the Government and the sector are working together to bring forward viable alternatives, and it was impressive to see the range of services offered in a new community hub. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North all the best with the regeneration project, and perhaps there could one day be a banking hub. For the time being, Barclays is seeking to mitigate the change that is happening.

Members may know that the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which has had its final day of debate in the House of Lords, will shortly be coming back to the Commons for a final time before being put on the statute book. I hope, that will happen within a matter of weeks, if not days. The Bill enshrines for the very first time a statutory right of access to cash—free cash, no less—working with the LINK network and with UK Finance, convened by the Government. That is one of the ways that we seek to underwrite this, and I understand that it is underwriting; it is not the full provision that every colleague seeks.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, we have to be very mindful of the vulnerable. The Government are committed to cash. It is not the Government’s policy to seek to extricate cash entirely from the system. It is very important to underwrite it for those who are vulnerable, those who have some sort of impairment or simply those who manage their finances through cash.

We have made significant interventions through that Bill—the great clunking force of law—to ensure that our constituents can continue to have access to free cash and, potentially more importantly, although it does not show up as much in our inboxes, that businesses can continue to have access to deposit cash. If they do not have that really important part of the supply chain, businesses will find it more onerous to accept cash, and we will not have the ability to pay with cash.

There is a range of alternatives in place. My hon. Friend is right to have secured this debate on behalf of his constituents and others.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I am pleased with the Minister’s kind words about the importance of this debate. Before the bank is closed, there is due to be a Kidsgrove town deal board meeting, where we will discuss the planning for the shared services hub we hope to create. Could the Minister find time—perhaps just five minutes—to pop in to hear about how this could be a building that fits in with the banking hub being created, and whether, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire said earlier, he is convening power to encourage those banks to consider moving into the new facility being created?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I will give that due consideration. I do not want to make a commitment from the Dispatch Box today, in part because we operate a federated tapestry in financial services regulation. The FCA has the primary duty of regulating the banks, and that includes regulating the conduct of bank closures, but it is also the case that there are organisations such as LINK and Cash Access UK, which recently opened the excellent banking hub in Acton—the model to which my hon. Friend perhaps aspires. Rather than the Minister trampling incautiously into that tapestry, I will give consideration and write to my hon. Friend with my suggestions for the best course of action he can take on behalf of his constituents. If a banking hub is the course he seeks, I will of course try to do all I can to support him and his constituents on that journey.

These are not easy matters. We are seeing a significant transition, but I reassure my right hon. and hon. Friends—and you, Ms Nokes—that this remains a point of intense focus for us. It is something we have taken action on, even in legislation going through Parliament right now. I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North and all his constituents, whom he represents so ably in this House, the very best as they seek to do everything they can for their community.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.