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Financial Services (Rural Communities)

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to bring this matter to Westminster Hall today. I can understand why the Minister might be a little reluctant to interfere in it, because presumably he would not want to micro-manage the affairs of many of our financial institutions. However, I may be able to suggest one or two ways in which the Government could have influence in the matter and ensure, by working with communities, that financial services and advice on financial matters are available to our communities.

Looking around Westminster Hall at the Members present, I wonder if the fact that my name is associated with this debate means that people think that it is a Welsh issue, but of course it is not. It is very much a reserved matter and one for the Westminster Parliament and the UK Government.

I was very lucky to secure this debate almost immediately after applying for it. Sometimes hon. Members apply for debates over a long period without securing them, but as soon as I applied for this debate I was very fortunate to receive the opportunity to have it.

The reason that I put in for the debate is the worrying trend of high street bank branch closures in rural areas. According to the Campaign for Community Banking Services, in the past 20 years 7,388 bank branches have closed and most of those closures have been in rural or suburban areas. The CCBS estimates that, in Wales alone, 56 communities are left with just one bank each.

I will use an example from my own constituency—hon. Members will understand that often these debates are initiated or spurred on by Members’ experience in their own constituencies. For the past six months in my constituency, the local Welsh Assembly Member, Kirsty Williams, and I have been trying to save a branch of Barclays bank in the small market town of Rhayader. Rhayader has a population of approximately 2,000 people, with many more people living in its rural hinterland and catchment area. Members present will understand that Rhayader is a marvellous market town in the Cambrian mountains, very close to the Elan valley. More than 100 years ago, the Birmingham Corporation built dams in that valley to provide water for the wonderful city of Birmingham. The Elan valley has now become a tourist area, along with other attractions in the Cambrian mountains.

Unfortunately, Barclays refused to keep its branch in Rhayader open and the people of the town are now served by a solitary HSBC branch, which is open for a total of 18 hours each week, between 9.30 am and 3.30 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The Barclays branch in Rhayader closed last Friday and already the building is being gutted, the “For Sale” sign is up and the cash point, which was a very valued facility for the town, has a sheet of plyboard across it. There is no more money to be had from the ATM in Barclays in Rhayader.

There is some strength in Barclays’ argument and I understand its argument. Barclays argues that the people who used the branch in Rhayader were not buying enough of its financial services and financial products to make the operation of the branch profitable. However, there is another argument that many of those people who used the branch actually bought services from Barclays in the past. They had their mortgages, pensions, saving products and general insurance from the bank and the fact that many of them have paid off their mortgage or are now receiving their pension means that there was not a good enough case for Barclays to say, “I’m afraid that from now on you won’t be able to have that face-to-face service that you have enjoyed in the past.” I believe that banks have a duty of care to the people for whom they provide products.

Another argument used for the closure of the Rhayader branch is that local people can use other branches nearby. However, let me give an example of the geography of this area. The nearest Barclays bank branch to Rhayader is in Llandrindod Wells, which is a 24-mile round trip from Rhayader. In mid-Wales, there is very little public transport, so that journey is very difficult for some people.

I want to give a few local examples to provide a little local colour. Daisy Powell runs the local newsagent in Rhayader, in the shop right next door to the branch of Barclays. She has banked at Barclays for a modest 52 years, during the time that she has run her business. She used to bank cash three times a week, but now she either has to drive for miles to bank cash or faces the anxiety of keeping cash on her premises. Another example is that of Jo and Chris Walton, who run a very good electrical appliance shop that was set up by their father. They have also had a business account with Barclays for more than 50 years and they too now face having to make long journeys to do their banking.

Now there are no banking facilities in Rhayader on a Tuesday, which is the livestock market day. Rob Lewis farms 150 beef cattle and 2,500 sheep at Pistyll farm, which is just outside Rhayader at Cwmdauddwr. As many local farmers did, he used to pick up his cheque from the auctioneers and bank his money at Barclays on the Tuesday after the livestock market.

There are also disabled and infirm residents, for whom the type of journey that I have mentioned would cause major problems. Ed Narborough is almost totally blind and uses a wheelchair. He has had to choose between changing banks to HSBC, which would mean not having a five-day banking service, or trying to make the journey to Llandrindod Wells.

One effect of the closure of the Barclays branch in Rhayader is that the town is now left with only one cash point. We all know how temperamental cash points can be. Just when someone wants that £10 to buy the last round of drinks that will bring an evening to a wonderful conclusion, they find that the cash point has run out of money or is failing to pay out for some technical reason. Rhayader relies on tourism for much of its income, but it is faced with having only one cash point machine and if that machine goes out of action at the beginning of a weekend or, even more worryingly, at the beginning of a bank holiday weekend, people will be unable to get cash within the town and are likely to move on to another town where there are better cash point facilities.

Barclays has argued that many of its customers are moving to online banking as an alternative to using a branch.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Lest we concentrate too much on Barclays, I am sure that it is right to say that other banks have taken similar steps to those that Barclays has taken. Does he share my concern about the potential closures arising from the announcement by Lloyds TSB bank that it will be divesting itself of perhaps 600 branches in the very near future and does he believe that such closures might have as bad an effect on local services in rural Wales and elsewhere as the closures of Barclays branches?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. When a company such as Lloyds TSB indicates that it will make branch closures, we can readily anticipate where those closures will be made. Indeed, I have some statistics about other companies and I do not wish to concentrate on Barclays. It is just that Barclays is in the forefront of my mind at the moment. It is not only Barclays that has been closing branches. In 2010, HSBC closed 52, Barclays 40, NatWest 18 and Lloyds TSB 11. As my hon. Friend pointed out, more closures are in the pipeline.

Online banking is, to an extent, a generational problem. To draw a parallel, in a debate on fuel poverty in this Chamber, it was pointed out that many people now have the opportunity to take advantage of competition in the fuel sector. A number of hon. Members were in the debate, but only two of us had never switched suppliers—me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable). We were, I think, of a different generation. Many people who bank at small rural branches are not willing or readily able to switch to online banking. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) will be making a point about access to broadband and the internet, and such points were made very well in the rural broadband debate that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) secured in Westminster Hall last week. Many of these people do not have access to fast, safe internet, so even if the will is there it might not be possible for them to bank online. I commend the Government for the excellent steps that they have already taken on rural broadband, but more must be done so that rural businesses, people and communities are not left behind.

I shall finish, as far as Barclays is concerned, by saying that during the process I have been speaking about it was announced that Barclays had made a profit of £6.1 billion, and that its chief executive, Bob Diamond, was receiving a £6.5 million bonus. Bob Diamond’s fan club in Rhayader is not full, and if anyone wants to make an application to join I am sure that there is plenty of capacity. Having said that, Barclays did not take any public money during the banking crisis, for which it should be applauded. It certainly benefited, however, from the liquidity measures and the quantitative easing that the Government implemented to help the banks through the credit crunch, so it should show more thought for its customers, whose taxes assisted in keeping it afloat during that difficult time. I should, of course, point out that it is not only Barclays that has been making closures, as my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) has pointed out.

I understand the commercial pressures that the banks are under, but they must understand the effects that closures have on tourism, economic development and customers in rural areas. What is the solution? The Campaign for Community Banking Services suggests that we set up a community bank—one centrally run facility in the community with face-to-face services operating on behalf of all banks and building societies. There would be only one set of overheads, and the massively reduced costs would be covered by all the participating banks. I understand that it would use the same technology as that which links ATMs, so the set-up costs would be not too large. A similar system in the United States has proved very successful. It seems an ideal solution, with our constituents continuing to receive the service that they so desperately need. Will the Minister outline any discussions that he has had on a similar community banking facility for the UK?

I want to say a few words about mutuals and credit unions. I am a member of the Brecon credit union, am well aware of the part that such organisations can play, and have recently met with representatives of the building societies that have remained in the mutual sector. They do a very good job of providing services in local areas, and are able to lend not just on an arithmetic income multiple but on their better understanding of the local economy and of the quality of employment in which many people who wish to get a mortgage are involved. The smaller mutual building societies complain that the reporting and regulatory requirements are more fitted to larger financial organisations. They would like the Government’s approach to be more risk related, and some of the very onerous regulations to be moderated in some way.

It is not just the closure of bank branches that is of concern. I am very pleased that the Government have announced that they intend to maintain, as far as possible, the post offices, which are the financial and social hub of rural areas but which have too frequently been closed. The Communication Workers Union says that 1,000 post offices—one in 10—closed in 2010, and about 2,500, many in rural areas, have been closed in recent years.

Although I am aware that mail volumes are falling, and that other services that branches offer, such as benefit payments, are moving online, I ask that the Minister, in conjunction with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, seriously take on board the value and worth of rural post offices. According to Age Concern, 44% of pensioners use post offices to collect their pensions, 43% use them for access to cash and 56% use them to pay their bills. At both a local level and a Government level, we must do what we can to prevent widespread closures and long-term temporary closures. There has been an announcement that the long hoped for post bank will not be proceeded with, but does the Minister have any thoughts on whether a similar facility could be set up to address many of the issues that we are debating today?

The next issue that I want to talk about could be a huge problem for all our constituents. The cheque has been an integral part of our lives for more than 350 years, but there are plans to phase it out by November 2018. We currently write more than 4 million cheques per day, and despite the decline in usage we will still be writing 650 million a year in 2018. Cheques are essential and irreplaceable in many situations, and they are particularly important in rural areas. There is currently no easier, safer or more efficient way to pass money from one person or organisation to another.

Cheques are easy to use, virtually fraud proof, can be posted or handed over anywhere, and are cheap, safe, popular and understood by all. The use of credit and payment cards has, of course, hugely altered payment methods by virtually replacing cash in most everyday transactions, but only larger businesses can afford the technology to install card machines and we are light years away from the day when every individual will be able to receive payments by card.

There is only one reason to get rid of cheque books— profit. Cheque books are more expensive for banks than credit or debit cards. Handling paper is not efficient according to the bean counters, and as all British taxpayers know to their cost, banks are driven by many things other than providing a convenient service for their customers. The abolition of the cheque will lead to an increase in the black economy, as people will start paying cash when a cheque would have previously been used. It could also lead to an increase in crime, as older and more vulnerable people who are unable or unwilling to use other methods start storing significant amounts of cash at home. We do not currently have a viable alternative to the cheque, and until we find one not even the thought of it being abolished should be entertained. Will the Minister ensure that no decisions are made on the abolition of cheques before a viable alternative is found?

In conclusion, these are difficult times for rural constituents, with rising oil prices and the necessary cuts to public services. People need good and proper access to financial services so that they can grow their small business, obtain a mortgage for their first home, or cash and pay in their cheques so the local economy can grow and flourish. Thank you, Mr Caton. I open the floor to my colleagues.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) on securing this important debate. I am sad that so few of us are in the Chamber, as the issue is vital to communities in general, and specifically to rural communities such as those in my constituency and, even more so, in my previous constituency of Caernarfon, which has a large rural hinterland, now part of Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I also congratulate him on his early-day motions, which I have signed. I checked; I have signed at least one of them. He has a track record on the issue.

A great deal of attention has been given recently to the bonus culture and high salaries in banks, but the changes in banking that have the most intimate and direct impact on our constituents happen on the high street: particularly, for the purposes of this debate, in the towns and rural villages of Wales. That impact has had less attention, as has the effect on jobs in the banking sector. A job in the banking sector is always seen as a safe and effective career. Several of my contemporaries at school went into banking. I come across them occasionally, and they are now on extended gardening or golfing leave. That is the effect when banks close, as many have done in the past few years.

We have been given briefing material for this debate. I will refer particularly to the Countryside Alliance’s briefing, which I found useful. According to my briefings, 7,000 branches have closed in the past 20 years, leaving about 10,000. That is a 40% change—ish; my arithmetic is not very good this morning—in provision, which is substantial. Rural banks face a threat. It is not only Barclays, which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned, but HSBC and the other members of the big four. In my constituency, the Campaign for Community Banking Services has identified Llanberis as an area of potential difficulty, with only one remaining bank serving a large tourist area visited by many thousands of people during the summer. A couple of other communities in my constituency are in the same situation. Elsewhere, in Bangor, Betws-y-Coed, Wrexham and throughout rural north Wales, the provision of banking services is fragile and under threat.

Unfortunately, the banks have been less than candid over the years about what they are doing. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, of which I used to be a member, took evidence from banks some years ago about closures in rural communities. Interestingly, one bank provided us with a map showing that there was a bank within five miles of a community where another bank was closing. Unfortunately, a large mountain was in the way. One would have had to travel all the way down the valley and back up it to get to the bank that was allegedly five miles away, and the return journey would have taken most of the day on public transport. Banks have been less than candid.

I referred in an intervention to the potential danger that some Lloyds branches might close. I understand that Lloyds is in a difficult position—it must divest itself of parts of its operation due to European Community state aid rules—but about 600 branches are threatened, and I fear that they might be sold off. I understand from the press that the new chief officer of Lloyds, Mr Antonio Horta-Osorio, has announced that the plans to sell off the banks are to be accelerated, so the change will happen quickly. That is not only a threat to the Lloyds network; Lloyds also controls Cheltenham and Gloucester and TSB. People do not realise that it has several brand names. I am not sure whether the Government can do anything about that, but I will be interested to hear whatever the Minister has to say.

Local bank branches are vital to commercial activity. The hon. Gentleman mentioned shops in his constituency; the same is true in rural parts of my constituency. Equally importantly, local banks are also a good way to address financial exclusion, which I know concerns this Government greatly, as it did the previous Government. A bank in a community allows for a measure of inclusion; the converse is also true.

Assisting older people, people with a disability and vulnerable people with their banking needs is also an issue. Not everybody can do their banking over the phone or broadband. The Government have at last announced an initiative to bring superfast broadband to parts of Wales, including my hometown of Pwllheli, but that will not extend to all communities. I must mention Rhiwlas, as I always do when I refer to this issue. It is within sight of the university city of Bangor but has appalling broadband service, and there seems little prospect of its being improved. That is not a way out for many people and, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we might see the end of cheques, which would also be a tragedy.

On the current trend towards automated banking, my branch, HSBC in Caernarfon, is an excellent branch in the middle of town, but it has recently been largely automated. There are banks of machines for printing statements, depositing money and withdrawing money and a telephone that one can use to talk to somebody far away. The counter space has been reduced to two positions. I was there the other day. A member of staff was hovering around the machines to seduce customers into using them, but there was an enormous queue for the two positions, one of which was closed. People are voting with their feet. They would rather queue for 10 or 15 minutes than use the machines. That says that people appreciate the face-to-face nature of banking transactions. Banks divest themselves of that way of promoting their business at their cost.

HSBC has also introduced its own radio station. I do not know whether hon. Members have heard it. When one queues for a position, one must listen to pop music, news and advertisements for the bank’s own products. I almost think that HSBC is doing it deliberately to drive customers away; it certainly drove me to use the automated facilities. As I said, banks will have to learn—as have Departments, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions—that people like to discuss their business face to face. I would also say that face-to-face business is of itself good business.

My party’s policy for many years has been to set up local community-based banks. In fact, it was one of the central planks of our 2007 manifesto. If local community-based banks cannot be set up wholesale, we would like pilot schemes. I know that this Government and the previous Government thought carefully about setting up post banks, but if a scheme cannot be introduced wholesale, can pilot schemes be tried, just to see what would happen? Post offices offer themselves as ideal locations for providing access to personal and small business banking. I will not pursue the question of post office closures, Mr Caton—I am sure that you would stop me in my tracks if I did—but I note that there were 200 closures in Wales during the last wave of closures, 11 in my constituency. However much local people complained—I organised a series of public meetings in my constituency that were very well attended—the net effect was that 11 closures were proposed, and 11 closures went ahead. I was not sure from the hon. Gentleman’s remarks whether it is still Liberal Democrat policy to have post banks or community banks. It would be sad if that has changed.

Finally, in Cardiff we have a One Wales Government made up of Plaid Cymru and the Labour party, and we have invested recently in credit unions, which are an excellent way of providing small amounts of money—small loans—for people, and of saving small sums of money. The One Wales Government have invested a further £3.4 million in credit unions.

One of the points on which I could have expanded is that there does not seem to be a root from which a credit union can progress to become a larger, more responsive financial service, such as the mutual building societies, which, of course, originated in small communities such as ours.

Indeed. There is a gap in the market. Credit unions are very good for people who need small amounts of money and need to save, but it is not so easy for businesses to access small amounts of investment. There have been huge complaints about the way in which the large banks have been acting in that regard recently. I am loth to mention cases, but a holiday business in my constituency closed down because trade was terrible and the bank withdrew its banking facilities. Without going into details, all I need to say is that it was winter—trade is always terrible in winter—and the bank would not wait until summer. I would say, therefore, that there certainly is a gap in the market. Our proposal as a party is for a postal bank—a people’s bank, as it were.

I will end by saying that I would like the Welsh Assembly Government to have the legal power to intervene in the market in that way if this place does not do so itself. I think that everybody understands that there has to be change. Banks are commercial organisations, but there has to be much greater social responsibility in their business.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Caton. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) on securing this important debate. He may not be rewarded by a mass turnout this morning, but he knows that this is an important issue for those of us who serve rural communities, not least in north and mid-Wales.

Much concern has rightly been expressed today about the total number of rural bank branch closures. There has been a 43% net reduction in branches since 1990 and an 18% net reduction since 2000. Figures from the Campaign for Community Banking Services show that the UK has significantly fewer branches than other comparable European states. There are 170 branches per million inhabitants in the UK, compared with 440 in France, 570 in Italy, 480 in Germany and 1,010 in Spain. I do not know what the trend is in those countries, but I suspect that some of their communities have been better served by the banks than ours.

There are obvious reasons why banks choose to close less-well-used branches. They operate in a very competitive environment, but, none the less, access to banking services is essential in any community, and we have to find ways to ensure that that presence remains throughout the country. The CCBS has talked of the need for flexible format-shared branching, whereby third party providers provide services through a variety of channels, such as post offices, village shops or even community shops. I emphasise that the services provided are essential. The anecdotal evidence that we have heard from Arfon and from Brecon and Radnorshire makes that point strongly. I concur with what has been said about duty of care. Anger is felt in communities such as Rhayader over the billions of pounds that the banks currently earn.

In 2009, a report by the Commission for Rural Communities, “Rural Money Matters”, considered the difficulties associated with rural financial inclusion in England, but much of what it says also resonates throughout the rest of the UK, including rural Wales. The report points out the consequences of the lack of access to financial services. For example, the fact that most employers require wages to be paid into a bank—many do not—limits the employment opportunities for those without a bank account. Many will miss out on the discounts available for direct debit and online payment, and even the ability to shop around for credit could force those in rural areas to pay more.

Another impressive organisation, Consumer Focus Wales, published a report, “The Cost of Cash”, in November 2009. It recommended several steps, including face-to-face support for those opening a bank account for the first time; explaining how direct debit works; and exploring alternative arrangements for electronic payments, such as setting up sub-accounts solely for bill payments, to alleviate some of the fears associated with direct debit payments. The infrastructure needs to be in place, however, if many of those suggestions are to become a reality.

The number of free ATMs has increased, but, in smaller communities and the more rural areas, many of our villages are five miles or more from a cash point, which is a concern, particularly when we also see deficiencies in public transport. My bank for the past 27 years has been Lloyds in Aberystwyth, and I live six miles away from that town. My community is still served by some modest public transport and I own a car, but many people in my constituency do not have that luxury and live considerably more than six miles away from their nearest bank.

We also need to look at the impact—this is a fundamental point—on the local economy. It is very difficult for small businesses to operate in rural areas without immediate access. My hon. Friend mentioned the proprietor of the newsagent in Rhayader taking her cash in. I can guarantee that, at 4.30 pm on any day of the week, local businesses are queuing at Lloyds bank in Aberystwyth to pay cash over the counter. In Ceredigion, we have the largest proportion of people employed by small businesses anywhere in the UK, and those businesses are vital to our community. I think we could multiply a thousand times the anecdotal evidence that my hon. Friend has given from Rhayader. It is a big issue for our small businesses.

One of the additional barriers that we face to accessible financial services is the lack of digital inclusion. Those of us with rural constituencies will be familiar with the figure that is bandied around of 99% of exchanges being broadband enabled, but the picture is very different on the ground. Even those who are able nominally to receive broadband often find that their service is slower and less reliable. The Government have indicated welcome investment in superfast broadband, but it is also key that they tackle existing not-spots as a priority, so that those who currently do not have access to broadband, who are often also likely to be those without access to physical services, are able to access things such as online banking. I pay tribute, in a cross-party way, to some of the initiatives undertaken by the National Assembly. Certain communities in Ceredigion have certainly benefited from remedial action by the Assembly Government.

Another broadband-related issue that we face in rural areas is that, as well as generally receiving a slower line speed and a more patchy service, people have had to pay rather more for it. In areas where BT is the sole wholesale provider, internet service providers have been charged line rental, which has then been passed on to the customer, meaning that many of the cheap deals advertised by ISPs are out of reach for many living in rural areas. In January, Ofcom proposed that BT reduce those charges, and it would be helpful if the Minister or one of his colleagues could update us on that.

The lack of bank branches and, indeed, other financial services means that there is a need to use the facilities that we have, most obviously post offices. The Government have announced plans to make post offices what they call a front office for Government. Those of us who have been arguing against the retreat of Government from our post offices would certainly welcome that in order to make services accessible and to safeguard the remaining post office network. There was disappointment that the Government did not advance the suggestion of a post office bank, but they have reached an agreement with banks, whereby 80% of current accounts will be accessible at post offices. I think that that will have a significant impact where those post offices exist for those communities. It would be helpful if the Minister could outline what steps have been taken to ensure that the aspiration to provide Government services through the Post Office is realised, and that the network can benefit from additional revenue streams.

Another crucial issue—I shall broaden the definition of financial services slightly—is the availability of financial advice and help for people with debt problems. I very much support the efforts of hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) in talking about compulsory financial education in schools. That would be of great benefit in establishing financial literacy from a young age. It remains the case that when people have debt problems, financial advice is harder to access. In some rural communities, it is physically harder to access that advice. In Ceredigion, we have two excellent citizens advice bureaux—one in Cardigan and one in Aberystwyth. My wife is the trustee of one. We are lucky because, this Thursday, they will merge to make a county-wide CAB service. However, that still presents a difficult journey for people who live outside towns—although the CAB has undertaken good outreach work in some scattered communities. I welcome the Government’s extension of the financial inclusion fund but, particularly in these difficult economic times, there is still an issue with people accessing such financial advice.

Both my colleagues have expressed concern about the demise of the cheque. I echo the difficulties that that presents for many, especially the elderly. I appreciate that that matter is the responsibility of the Payments Council and not the Government, but it would be helpful if the Minister could assure us that the Government are committed to ensuring that any decision on cheques will not be taken without considering the impact on those who still use them, particularly the elderly. I include myself in that.

In rural areas, we often have debates—both my colleagues have participated in debates for many more years than me—about the importance of retaining services in our communities and the principles of rural entitlement. We have heard both the current and previous Governments talk about how difficult it is to justify the costs of retaining services because of the increased reliance on online methods. However, it is often more difficult to access services online in rural communities. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that rural communities will disappear unless we protect those services. I congratulate the Government on their early pronouncements on the Post Office and the investment—necessarily limited as it is—in superfast broadband. However, much more can and needs to be done.

When we consider community and services, I take a slightly holistic view. Let us reflect on why young families might want to move into the kind of community that I represent. When we consider the specifics of why young families move into a community, there are certain essential ingredients. First, there is an implicit need for a job. Secondly, people might consider the presence of a village school, certain retail outlets, a public transport system, a post office and access to financial services. Those factors are all part of the mix that means we can still have vibrant communities in rural areas. That is why this debate is so important and why we look forward to hearing what the Minister and his shadow, the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), have to say on the matter.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) on succeeding in securing the debate. This is an incredibly important topic for a number of hon. Members. As he has said, I am surprised that more hon. Members were not aware that the debate was being held this morning. The issue that we are discussing comes up in rural communities particularly, precisely for the reasons the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) gave when talking about the crucial ingredients that help to create a vibrant town, village or community. A critical, tipping-point questions is: how many of those vital services can be removed before a village or town becomes less attractive, viable and functional?

I shall start by stepping back and looking at the current range of financial service providers in the UK. What should banks—financial service institutions—have as their core purpose? Ultimately, banks are utilities; they are a necessity in modern life. We are not talking about a discretionary activity; people do not choose to have a bank account, or, necessarily, to borrow or save. Credit and its availability is part of the warp and weft of modern live, so we need to treat banking and financial services in a similar way to water, electricity, gas and so on.

I sincerely hope that the Independent Commission on Banking, chaired by John Vickers, which is due to report in the summer, will take as its starting point the social purpose of financial services, and the issue of what banks are for. I hope that it will move from that basic philosophical concept to the question of what consumers need as a basic level of service across the country. Ideally, consumers should have choice and diversity in the services that they consume. We need to look at the current provision of financial services, particularly in rural communities, and ask whether we are really providing that choice and diversity to local people. I am not convinced that the current arrangements are ideal. The credit crunch and the banking crisis have hindered rather than helped a move in that direction. As hon. Members have said, we need new entrants in the financial services market.

There is a specific issue surrounding the rural poor. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), who secured the debate, represents Powys. That is one of the most rural counties and it has, I think, nearly the lowest wages in Wales. Incidentally, it also has the highest level of car ownership, which is a further burden on people. The rural poor are particularly excluded in the situation that we are talking about—I am sorry that my intervention is so long, Mr Caton—and last night I saw an advertisement on television for a company that provides loans based on a week’s wages. The interest rate is around 2,000% per annum. People are going to fall prey to those sorts of temptations.

Absolutely; the hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. The pay-day lending industry has tried to fill the gap where the mainstream financial services sector has pulled back. In rural communities—this certainly happens in urban communities, such as my constituency of Nottingham East—people have had difficulty accessing mainstream financial services, so those less desirable players have moved in to fill the void. The gap available is being filled not only by high-interest legal players, but the illegal loan-sharking sector. That is a real and growing problem. In recent years, surveys have demonstrated that financial service deserts have grown up across different parts of the country. It is therefore incredibly important that when the Independent Commission on Banking reports this summer, we take the opportunity to step back, take stock and say, “What should good, responsible, social banking involve?” That is not a party political point; we are talking about something that communities need and deserve.

I am concerned about the points made about branch closures in some of the mainstream banks, as they start to retreat from rural communities. Hon. Members have already referred to the Campaign for Community Banking Services and its survey about the number of bank branches that are closing, particularly where a bank is the last one in a town. That leaves those towns or villages without any banking cover at all. I shall mention briefly some of the places affected. Barclays is closing the last bank in town in Kelvedon and Southminster in Essex, and Bedfont in Middlesex. Lloyds is closing the last bank in town in Potton in Bedfordshire, Wainfleet in Lincolnshire, Bilton in Rugby, Barton-under-Needwood in Staffordshire, Netley Abbey and Stockbridge in Hampshire, and Yarmouth. HSBC is closing the last bank in town in Whitburn in Tyne and Wear, Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire and Hoylake in Cheshire.

In addition, although it is not exactly a rural area, we had a debate the other night about the Nationwide closing a number of branches in south-east London. A number of big financial players could be criticised for diminishing the services to long-standing and loyal customers who really appreciate access to a branch.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made a point about access to online banking and the requirement for broadband. High-speed internet is very important, particularly in rural areas, but it is not always available. The hon. Member for Ceredigion talked about the broader concept of financial services, and financial advice. I would add to that the controversy about access to independent financial advice and independent financial advisers, or IFAs. Sometimes, IFAs are one of the only providers of independent financial advice in small communities. Hon. Members may be familiar with the retail distribution review being conducted by the Financial Services Authority, and the impact that that might have on the ability of communities in rural areas to access independent financial advice.

The IFAs are under pressure, not only as a result of the FSA review, in terms of the extra qualifications that they need to gain, but as a result of changes to commission structures, which need to be handled far more carefully. There are also increasing pressures as a result of the levy placed on them by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. There a number of factors, some of which have reasonable arguments behind them, that together could place in jeopardy the ability of individuals to get free or low-cost financial advice. Will the Minister confirm that he is conscious of that strategic risk to the IFA community? What steps will be taken to ensure that that advice will still be available, despite so many proposed changes?

The hon. Member for Ceredigion congratulated the Government on maintaining the financial inclusion fund for another year. That is one of those strange things that happens in politics when something that is valued is initially scrapped. There were howls of protest in the previous Budget when the Conservative-led Administration decided to scrap the £27-million financial inclusion fund. The fund pays for at least 500 debt advisers—largely face-to-face citizens advice bureaux advisers and so on—and I think it helps to support approximately 100,000 appointments each year. Those howls of protest helped to bring about a partial U-turn from the Government, and a few weeks ago they announced that they will keep the fund going for another financial year. Are we supposed to show gratitude for that? Well, perhaps, but it is not enough to say “Thank you for continuing the fund for another year.”

I want to know what the Government’s plans are for the end of the 2011-12 financial year. What will happen, in April 2012, to the financial inclusion fund? We are in the spending review period, so there is no excuse for not knowing the available finances. The Minister needs to say now what his plans are for the financial inclusion fund from that point; at the very least, it is surely necessary to give charities and organisations that provide debt advice certainty about what will happen over the spending review period, so the Minister needs to answer that point.

I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I share the general direction of his comments. None the less, it would be churlish not to congratulate the Government, because they listened to the strong concerns that were expressed on the issue. I was certainly relieved that two debt advisers in my constituency would carry on their excellent work in helping 500 families.

Absolutely. It would be churlish not to be glad that there is a continuation of that, but it is such a pity that it is on a piecemeal, ad hoc, year-by-year basis, when the fund should be a strategic plank of the Government’s approach to providing financial services and advice, especially in rural communities.

It is tragic that the areas where banks and post offices are closing are the areas where it is also so difficult to access financial advice, and more general advice from the citizens advice bureaux and from lawyers in public service. Banks and post offices are closing and creating deserts, as far as advice is concerned, throughout large parts of rural Wales.

The hon. Gentleman is completely correct. Of course, it is not just the financial inclusion fund that gets thrown into the mix, in terms of supporting CAB and others. Local government grant services are as critical, and the spending reductions are also having an impact on that area.

It is important to remember that some banks and other financial services institutions are subsidised heavily by the taxpayer, so they have a wider community duty that we MPs have a right to call into question. They serve a customer base, too, and the degree to which they serve their customers is intriguing. In recent years, bank mark-ups on the cost of borrowing have become considerable. The availability of decent interest rates for savers has gone down and down—that is the so-called interest rate spread issue—so consumers are paying a heavier price. That affects people in rural communities, as elsewhere.

The bank base rate has fallen from 5% to 0.5%—a change of 4.5%—yet the charges on overdrafts have fallen by only 1.8%. Charges on credit cards have fallen by only 0.8%. The charge on fixed-rate loans has fallen by 0.4%, and on mortgages, according to the New Economics Foundation, there is a spread of approximately 3% in post-credit crunch extra profit that the banks are making from ordinary borrowers and households in rural and urban areas. The foundation estimates that there was something like £1.6 billion in extra profit in 2009, and a further £1.5 billion per year from 2010. Consumers are taking a considerable hit, but do they feel that they are getting services back in return? That question should not be neglected. It is not just taxpayers’ interests but consumer interest that we need to protect when we think about banking and financial services reform.

I am very sorry that the Government have decided to renege on the promise that they made in the coalition agreement, in respect of the Post Office bank plans. That idea was floated by the previous Government, and we thought it had been taken up by the new Administration when they mentioned it in the coalition agreement. In November, however, the idea for a Post Office bank, in which post office facilities were used for some sorts of basic financial services, especially in rural areas, was ditched. At the time, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that the idea was too time-consuming and expensive to pursue, probably because of the privatisation process. That is a pity, and a huge missed opportunity. I note that the National Pensioners Convention said that that was an extremely short-sighted decision on the part of the Government.

I hope that the Minister will say that whatever happens to the Post Office, one requirement for future owners and operators of post office services will be, at some level, to have some sort of basic financial service transaction capability in those areas where post offices still exist. I would also like to explore the issue of local authorities, and encourage them to think about their role in community banking facilities. I know that many local authorities help supporting credit unions. That is a crucial dimension that needs to be encouraged, although local authorities, naturally, are retreating to their core activities.

[Miss Anne McIntosh in the Chair]

I am really glad that hon. Members raised the issue of the risk to the cheque, that paper-based payment system. Over the years, my aunts, uncles and grandparents have sent various little payments and presents in birthday cards. Many of us enjoy writing cheques and using that basic facility that we take for granted. The cheque is valued not just in rural areas or by older people, but in all walks of life. It is a simple and comprehensive system, and very popular as well. It would be an incredible pity to lose the cheque capability simply because the banks do not wish to provide it anymore. We know that free banking services are already at risk, so the Minister needs to take a more proactive stance and step in. Rather than leave the issue completely to the Payments Council, he needs to think about what powers the Treasury may need to consider in order to preserve that basic social function, should no alternative easy and simple method of payment be devised in the meantime. That is a crucial point.

The Treasury needs to stop its usual habit of giving the banks carte blanche on many of these issues, and it needs to start speaking up for communities, especially in rural areas, when it comes to the financial services that customers and taxpayers need. It would be a tragedy to forget the social necessity of banking and financial services. We need to ensure that the consumer perspective is at the heart of public policy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) on securing this debate. There may have been relatively few participants in it, but the quality of contributions has been high, and Members have recognised the importance of the issue.

Access to financial services is not just a rural issue. On a Friday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I responded to a debate secured by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on access to financial services in south-east London. There are some common strands, but the particular nature of rural communities creates an additional challenge that we need to reflect.

I shall respond to several points that were made before I cover most of the rest of the issues in a few brief remarks. On automated teller machines, it seems that hon. Members should be in Rhayader on a Friday night if the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is in town, since he is keen to ensure that he is able to get that tenner out of the cash point to buy us all a drink. He is right to highlight the fact that there is only one cash point in the town. He may be aware that since the report in December 2006 by a parliamentary working group on cash machines, LINK has received nominations for sites, particularly in low-income areas, for about 600 free cash machines. I encourage him to contact LINK directly to suggest that there is a need for one in his community.

My hon. Friend and several other hon. Members spoke about the future of the cheque, a matter which I take seriously. The previous Government turned a blind eye to the threat to the cheque. I have met the UK Payments Council and discussed with it the need to ensure that there is a viable alternative to the cheque before its operation ceases. I made it clear that that is a priority for this Government. It is not clear to me what the alternative would be, given the many qualities of cheques: they are easy to use, people are familiar with them and it is easy to post them. We wait to see what the council says, but I made it clear that it should proceed only if there is a viable alternative that is accepted by many of the groups that currently use cheques.

However, I add a note of caution. The diminishing use of cheques means that the cost per cheque is rising. Clearly, that cost has to be covered in some way, so no one should see cheques as an entirely free option.

The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) spoke about Lloyds Banking Group’s plans by to divest itself of 600 branches. He may recollect that the European Commission made that a condition of state aid before signing off the significant investment that the previous Government made in bailing out Lloyds after its merger with HBOS. The Commission required Lloyds to make a significant divestment, and it is making progress on that. There is a great opportunity for that divestment to be used to create a new challenger to UK banks. None of the existing banks in the UK that have a share of the personal account market of more than 14% can buy those branches, so there is an opportunity for someone to become a challenger—to enter the market, buy the branches and provide competition. There is not enough competition in banking at present. A new challenger in the market would help ensure a better deal for consumers, and that banks focus much more on their customers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) spoke about broadband services in rural areas, and how important it is to ensure that people in such areas have access to online banking. He will know that broadband is not a reserved policy, but work is being done through the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly on improving access to broadband.

In the spending review, we provided more than £500 million of funding for superfast broadband over the next four years, and some of that money can be used to pay for superfast broadband roll-out in areas that the market alone does not reach, including rural areas. The Welsh Assembly are now in discussions with Broadband Delivery UK on how its work will be supported in future.

I agree with my hon. Friend that there are huge opportunities if we can roll out superfast broadband to rural communities. It will help tackle the digital divide and not just enable banking services to be more easily accessed by people in rural areas but create new wealth opportunities, and encourage economic growth and development in those areas.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the future of the Financial Inclusion Fund. I am pleased that the Government will make funding available to continue the face-to-face advice project until April 2012. However, we have been clear that the debt advice sector needs to be put on a more sustainable footing in the long term. There is considerable investment already through the Consumer Finance Education Body, which is looking at financial advice more broadly. We have asked it to take forward debt advice as part of its work of running the money advice service. That work will be funded not by the taxpayer but the financial services industry, which benefits most directly from good quality debt advice being available. He made an important point about access to advice.

I will, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient for a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion made points about face-to-face advice and issues in rural areas around accessing advice. Part of the challenge is to ensure that advice is available when people need it. Sometimes that is difficult, given that citizens advice bureaux and other providers operate at fixed opening times, but there are other ways. The Money Advice Trust runs an effective telephone helpline service, as does the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, and we need to look at online tools. It is important that we have a holistic approach to financial advice, and that is why I am keen that the CFEB takes this forward and provides a coherent view about how we provide advice to people, not just in urban areas but across the country.

I accept what the Minister says about online and telephone advice, but, on face-to-face advice, can he confirm that, as far as the Government are concerned, the £27 million fund will not be available from April 2012 onwards? It is his decision that it will end next April.

The reality is that the previous Government expected the project to end at the end of this month—that was in their spending plan—but we have extended it for a further year. However, it is important that the financial services sector picks up the bill for it. It is important to integrate it as part of the CFEB—it is its responsibility to take it forward. Of course, we will work closely with that organisation and monitor it to ensure that it delivers that advice. It accepts that it is its responsibility to develop a model of debt advice that meets the needs of people across this country. That is an important goal for that body. The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) was not around in the last Parliament, but the CFEB had support from his party as well as mine. His colleagues in the then Government saw it as an important way of improving financial capability and advice, so there is shared interest in ensuring that it is successful.

I have two brief points to make about the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He should be very clear that the Independent Commission on Banking is a focused piece of work—perhaps he ought to read its terms of reference. It is about stability and competition in the banking sector, not the greater issue of banking’s social role. The ICB’s mandate is narrowly focused. The hon. Gentleman is looking perplexed.

With respect to the Minister, surely competition is integral to the wider social and consumer interest. If his Administration have so narrowly defined the ICB’s activities, is there not at risk that some more important questions might be neglected by Ministers in their future decisions?

We were keen to ensure that the ICB has a focused remit to enable it to deliver its work on time, so that we could take forward some of the lessons that should be learned from the financial crisis, when large banks posed a greater risk to the economy. UK banking was consolidated, partly as a consequence of the Lloyds and HBOS merger, and the building society sector became more concentrated. That is different from imposing additional social obligations on banks, which the hon. Gentleman seems to favour.

The hon. Gentleman also touched on independent financial advisers. He should be aware that their advice is not free; it is paid for through commission, and it is not always entirely transparent how much is being paid. A move to a fee-based system will help improve transparency. It is important that consumers receive good quality advice. We live in a complex world of financial services, and as a Minister I deal with too many cases of consumers being given bad advice and paying a high price for that. There is a strong consumer-friendly element in the reforms.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the financial services compensation scheme levy. It pays for the cost of failure among IFAs. It is an important part of the mechanism to give consumers confidence that if something goes wrong, the bill is picked up so that they are not left out of pocket. If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Financial Services Compensation Scheme should be reformed, and that someone else should pick up the levy, he should be clear which sectors should do so. My experience is that people are keen to offload the responsibility to someone else, but never clear who that should be. The scheme ensures that the sector swallows its own smoke.

Turning to the main issues raised by my hon. Friend the. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I recognise his concerns about the significant impact of branch closures in his constituency, and the fact that the HSBC branch in Rhayader has only limited opening hours. I also recognise that although people in rural areas experience the same financial challenges as people in towns and cities, living in a rural area may bring additional challenges. Exclusion from financial services may be less visible in many ways in rural areas compared with urban areas.

My hon. Friend referred to micro-managing banks’ activities. I am not interested micro-managing them, and that is as true for the banks in which the state has a significant stake as for those in which we have no shareholding. However, banks and building societies should serve the economy, and we are committed to improving access to banking, and transparency of financial products for consumers. Decisions on opening and closing branches are taken by the management team of each bank and building society on a commercial basis, and the Government do not intervene in such decisions.

My hon. Friend should recognise that the role of banks is not just about branches. They play a much a wider role in helping the UK economy, and we reached agreement with them earlier this year to encourage them to work in partnership to support the recovery, to increase the amount of money they lend to small and medium-sized enterprises, and to pay out lower bonuses than last year. They are more transparent about their pay, and are making an additional contribution to support business growth and the big society bank of £1.2 billion. However, there is more work to do to improve access to financial services, certainly among the most vulnerable groups, by supporting financial mutuals, and improving competition in the banking sector.

We are committed to improving access to basic financial services, especially for those who are vulnerable to exclusion, and we are working actively to ensure that all consumers can access an appropriate mix of financial services. Bank and building society branches are not the only channels for accessing financial services, nor are they necessarily favoured by consumers on low incomes. For many people, the barriers are significantly greater than simply having no local bank or building society branch to visit.

It is important that financial services adapt so that they fit the grain of how people run their lives. For example, many consumers without bank accounts express a preference for managing their finances in cash. They want direct control over their spending, and often believe that a bank account takes that away from them. For many, the financial services with which they engage most often are not in bank branches.

That brings me to the post office network, which has more branches than all the retail banks put together. An important part of the Post Office’s future sustainability will be the continued growth of revenue from financial services. The Government have promised that there will be no programme of post office closures, and in last year’s spending review we promised to provide £1.34 billion for the Post Office to modernise the network and to safeguard its future, making it a stronger partner for the Royal Mail. We have also said that expansion of accessible and affordable personal financial services available through the Post Office should be a priority. Our ambition is that all UK current accounts should be accessible through the post office network, making post offices the convenient place for people to access their cash.

I thank the Minister for his comments on the debate. On a practical issue, people tell me that the one thing they value about banks is that they can talk in private about their financial concerns. That facility is not available in post offices. If the Post Office is to deliver more financial services, it must address that issue, as well as availability, with the public.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As it expands the financial services that it offers, the Post Office will have to think about how to encourage take-up, and how to provide support and advice, if that is the route that it wants to take. I was about to acknowledge that the range of services that the Post Office will offer will not be the same as a community bank, which is an idea that he outlined.

There is a real challenge in putting in place the right model of financial services in rural communities. It is not right to mandate a particular model as being right. The impetus for new ways of developing services should come from the financial services sector. The hon. Member for Arfon complained about the HSBC branch that has become highly automated. The challenge there is whether that meant that the branch could stay open, and whether new technology is being used to keep more branches open by changing the way in which services are offered. There are some interesting challenges, and banks must work their way through them.

When thinking about how financial services best support families and businesses, particularly in rural areas, we must think more carefully about their changing nature. There is a risk of getting stuck in a particular view of how banking should work. People are turning increasingly to prepayment cards or e-money. For example, Tesco is making payment to short-term employees with an e-money card, instead of paying money into a bank account. We can learn from other countries how they have tried to get around lack of bank branches. We should think about developing new safe and convenient financial services using different channels.

Mutuals were mentioned a couple of times, and I am conscious of the excellent work done by credit unions, particularly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. Mutuals can be more accessible for those who cannot or do not want to access banks. The coalition is committed to a strong mutual sector that should have the capability to enrich British society. It is in everybody’s interest to do whatever we can to help the mutual sector prosper and grow, and for that to be achieved sustainably. Over the past few months, I have had the opportunity to start a meaningful dialogue with the mutual sector about its ambitions, looking at what services it can offer and how it can overcome the hurdles that have been holding it back.

Although mutuals benefit from not having to pay dividends to their shareholders, they have an obligation to their members. They have to strike a balance between meeting their wider obligations and providing returns to their members through higher returns on savings or lower borrowing costs, ensuring that they remain viable and competitive. Such considerations are at the heart of every decision made by a building society.

As a consequence of the financial crisis, there is clearly an appetite for change in the way financial services operate, and mutuals stand well placed to respond to that challenge. To help achieve it, the Government are implementing several legislative reforms to help create a more equal playing field in financial services, thus promoting diversity and providing a challenge to banks.

The legislative reform order on industrial and provident societies and credit unions has been a long time coming. It will be re-laid before Parliament shortly, and will introduce basic yet far-reaching reforms that will enable credit unions to modernise and grow. We will also take forward the implementation of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010 after the legislative reform order comes into force. That will bring the industrial and provident society name into the 21st century, and modernise the powers available to update legislation in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked about reducing the burdens on building societies. We will shortly lay an order that gives mutual societies—including building societies—the option to use electronic communications to engage with members and distribute certain statutory information, as opposed to sending it by hard copy. That will reduce costs to businesses and enable them to invest more in services.

In recent years, credit unions have made great progress in providing affordable financial services to people who could not otherwise access them. They provide an alternative to payday lending, loan sharks and home credit, and I want them to continue to develop and strengthen. We are providing additional support to those institutions outside the regulatory legislative process. Building on the financial inclusion growth fund, the Department for Work and Pensions will continue to support credit unions for four years through a new expansion and modernisation fund worth up to £73 million. The fund will seek to extend access to basic, appropriate financial services to many people on lower incomes, through modernising delivery and customer support systems.

One concern relayed to me by mutual societies, particularly building societies, is about the burden of reporting that has to be done on a regular basis, presumably to the Financial Services Authority. That seems to be out of proportion to the risk that building societies present, and certainly to that presented by large commercial organisations.

My hon. Friend makes an important point to which I should have responded earlier. He lays down a challenge about the burden imposed on building societies and other financial services organisations. The FSA has looked carefully at the regulation of building societies. He will be aware that building societies were affected during the financial crisis, and there were several rescues as they had to consolidate. The concern is that a number of them moved into areas in which they were not entirely comfortable or well resourced to deal with, and that put the building society and depositors at risk. We need to ensure a proportionate regime for regulating building societies that recognises the risks posed to members and financial stability.

One area in which the Government are taking forward further work to support building societies, and an issue building societies have raised as a consequence of the financial crisis, is the need to find new sources of capital. We are working closely with building societies to identify an instrument that enables them to raise capital markets, will help absorb losses if they occur in the future, and is consistent with enhancing the stability and security of the building society sector. We are taking active measures to strengthen the mutual sector because we believe that its diversity can act as a spur to further challenges to the banking sector. It is an important part of the architecture of financial services, not just in terms of providing mainstream products, but in trying to provide greater access to groups that are harder to reach.

I have been fortunate to have enough time to expand on the subject at some length. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that although the Government cannot intervene in the individual decisions taken by banks and building societies to close branches, we are committed to taking further steps to improve access to financial services throughout the country, in rural and urban areas alike. We recognise that particular challenges face financial services in rural areas, and we will continue to look carefully at those issues and listen to concerns raised by hon. Members.