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House of Commons Hansard
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Banking and Post Office Services (Rural Areas and Small Communities)
31 October 2018
Volume 648

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require banks to provide certain services in rural areas and small communities; to make provision for access to Post Office services in such areas and communities; and for connected purposes.

The Bill would amend the law relating to banking and Post Office services; make provisions to strengthen access to banking for rural and small communities by placing the access to banking standard on a statutory footing; place a duty on banks that received taxpayer funds to establish a community investment fund for when those banks leave a community; and strengthen the provision of Post Office services for rural and small communities across the UK.

As a liberal Conservative, I believe in the free market. However, many banks and financial institutions must shoulder a considerable burden of responsibility for the 2008 recession and their subsequent actions. They have endangered customers and taken money from the Government and they are now happily abandoning some of the most vulnerable communities they claim to support.

I think very few people in this House would argue that the digital revolution is not having an impact on the way people bank. However, it is the speed at which banks are withdrawing those services, the uneven distribution of the services that remain, and the incredibly weak substitutes that those banks are offering that is so completely unacceptable to our constituents. According to Retail Banker International, the number of bank branches in the UK dropped by 37% between 2007 and 2017. Meanwhile, in 2015, the Campaign for Community Banking Services produced an estimate of the number of “unbanked communities”, which stated that there were 840 communities with only one bank left, and 1,500 communities that had lost all access to their banks.

Since 2017, the Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, has announced the closure of 603 branches across the United Kingdom since 2017, 60 of which were in Scotland and three of which were in my constituency. Scant regard has been given to the impact on rural communities of closing these branches. In the case of Comrie and St Fillans in my constituency, the elderly are expected to make a 50-plus mile round trip, taking approximately two hours by bus—a journey that will hardly become more bearable as we head into the cold, winter months in Perthshire.

It is also the profile of the closures that grates. As the University of Nottingham identified, the

“largest decline in branch numbers are characterised by...the least affluent third of the population bearing the brunt of two thirds of net closures”.

That analysis was further reinforced by the Reuters news agency, which, in its 2016 analysis of Office for National Statistics figures, found that more than 90% of the 600 closures between April 2015 and 2016

“were in areas where median household income was below the British average of £27,600”.

At a time when financial inclusion and the need for enhanced social mobility is more important than ever, banks are pulling up the ladders of financial advancement for our poorer communities.

Meanwhile, despite justifying the closures on the grounds of the movement in consumer behaviour from branch to digital, these retail banks are still opening branches—opening branches in the oh-so rural and disconnected wards of Chelsea, Canary Wharf and Clapham, areas with 99%, 96.2% and 99.9% superfast broadband connectivity respectively, versus the 85.5% in my constituency. They are serving the customers they want, not those who need their services.

In the meantime, these retail banks have come to Select Committees here in this House and told us that they have done enough to cater for our communities—providing mobile banks for the elderly in some of the coldest and most geographically challenging parts of the UK, driving banking online in constituencies that struggle with mobile signal, let alone superfast broadband, and providing single community bankers as a substitute for a full-service branch. It is simply not good enough, especially when many of these institutions took British taxpayers’ funding 10 years ago.

So, when the banks refuse to listen to their local customers and their elected representatives from across the House, I ask the House to do what it was intended for: to legislate and stand up for the rights of small communities and vulnerable individuals. The Bill I present today proposes to do three things. First, it would formalise the access to banking standard, making it a legal requirement for all banks. It would also strengthen the access to banking standard, adding a requirement for a “rural weighting” to be taken into consideration as part of the impact assessment that is included within the standard. These further considerations would be in addition to the criteria, and would take into account local geography and winter weather patterns; local public transport links, including frequency and routes; and broadband and mobile coverage—benchmarked against the national average

The Bill will also make it a requirement, if a bank branch is to be closed early, to state clearly what consultation has taken place with the local Post Office as an alternative provider of banking services. It will also include a requirement for an ATM and a deposit service to be maintained as a basic level of service in a town or village. That is not a criticism of the access to banking standard as it currently stands—indeed, quite the opposite; I believe it holds some excellent standards of best practice. It is simply that giving the standard a statutory footing would give it additional heft to hold the banks to account.

Secondly, the Bill will seek to establish a community fund of £100,000 for each branch closure of banks that have had Government funding, or have Government as a significant shareholder. It is widely recognised that bank branches not only provide vital services to local individuals, businesses and community groups, but often occupy key positions in a town or village, contributing to the vibrancy of the high street and providing an indicator of local economic dynamism. However, the banks’ movement towards cities and out of the settlements that they support creates a responsibility for them to provide ongoing services and support the communities and customers that they are abandoning.

According to figures provided by the Library, bank branch closures dampen lending growth to small and medium enterprises by an average of 63% in those postcodes that lose a bank branch. The figure grows to 104% in postcode areas that lose their last bank in town, where there is an average of £1.6 million less lending as a result of that branch leaving town.

Therefore, £100,000 would not only help address the loss of business, but would go some way in supporting the local community, to be allocated to projects that help boost local high street activity and fund provisions for vulnerable people to access banking services, such as the extension of broadband to rural properties—which could of course be used in conjunction with the Government’s gigabyte voucher scheme. The community funds follow a precedent established by many energy firms, where they create community funds and profit-share agreements as part of local deals to install onshore wind farms.

Thirdly and finally, the Bill will strengthen the provision of Post Office services, which are having to pick up the pieces of the banks’ abandonment of our rural and small communities. Building on the Government’s capital fund to modernise the Post Office, under the Bill a closing bank must, before leaving a small town or village, deliver a direct mail to all affected customers, detailing the alternative banking measures provided and what services will be available through the Post Office, funded by the UK Government, including solutions for more substantial cash deposits for small businesses.

Between 2010 and 2018, the Government invested over £2 billion in the Post Office network, allowing the Post Office to modernise its network and protect more than 3,000 “last shop in the village” community branches. The Post Office currently offers services on withdrawals, deposits, cheques and balance inquiries for both personal and business banking customers, meaning that it is already well set up to deal with the increase in cash transactions when a decision is taken for a local bank branch to close. These services are provided for virtually all banks.

Although the Post Office does not currently have specific provisions for rural branches, it does recognise that bank branch closures will be felt more keenly in rural locations. Currently, the postmaster is remunerated in line with the value of cash deposits and withdrawals made. While the existing framework with the banks has an agreed fee for that, the fee often does not reflect the true cost in time taken to undertake that work—a point that will only be exacerbated in rural branches. Therefore, if banks are closing their branches in rural areas and post offices are picking up the pieces of bank branch closures, it would be only fair that the fee be adjusted to a more competitive rate, which allows for a weighting that more fairly reflects the costs for a rural post office branch, especially as the banks are seeing savings in the closing of branches. This would go a long way to secure further the Post Office network in such rural areas.

I am a fervent believer in the market economy, but in a time of great change, Government must ensure that no community is left behind. When banks and institutions have accepted public funding, they must accept that it comes with public responsibilities. We cannot have rural and small communities being abandoned; we cannot have a two-speed United Kingdom, so I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Luke Graham, John Lamont, Kirstene Hair, Scott Mann, Kevin Hollinrake, Jamie Stone, Caroline Flint, Martin Whitfield, Pete Wishart, Stephen Gethins and Ben Lake present the Bill.

Luke Graham accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 281).