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Rural Banking Services

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 20 July 2021

I beg to move,

That his House has considered rural banking services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray. I am grateful to other Members for attending the debate. It is hot outside but there is no reason it should be hot in here. This does not need to be a divisive debate and I hope we can talk about the positives and the negatives of the issue.

I want to cover both the availability of cash and the importance of banking infrastructure in rural areas. There is no doubt that the pandemic has forced businesses to adapt and accelerated a wider move towards digital payments. That is to be welcomed and I thank businesses across the country that have bent over backwards and adapted their systems to ensure that they can provide a service to isolated or elderly customers. However, I am concerned that this has implications for some members of society, particularly older and vulnerable people, who are much more likely to use cash. Lower income households and those without internet access are likely to be the most affected.

During the pandemic, cash use has declined, often in constituencies with higher levels of deprivation. In my constituency, cash withdrawals dropped by 55% in the first six months of the pandemic and in areas such as mine, where our broadband and mobile coverage is poor, cash is extremely important for rural businesses and individuals. I am grateful that the Government are listening on this and are proactive, as I know the Minister will outline later, and we have already made some good steps in that direction.

In 2019, the “Access to Cash Review” report highlighted the need for different Government bodies and regulatory authorities to work together to protect access to cash. That was then followed with a commitment from the Chancellor in his Budget to legislate to protect access to cash. In April 2021, the Government accepted an amendment to the Bill that became the Financial Services Act 2021, which would allow consumers to withdraw cashback from more retailers without having to make a purchase. We have a real-life example of that amendment working well in my constituency.

I have been working with the community access to cash group in Hay-on-Wye, which is a group of volunteers who have gathered together to focus on the problem of cash availability. I do not know if you know my constituency, Mr Gray, but Hay-on-Wye is a beautiful town and has a wonderful culture of striking out on its own. In fact, in 1973, Richard Booth, who appointed himself the king of Hay, declared Hay an independent kingdom, so we did not need to go through the Brexit referendum—it really was that easy.

As a result, Hay-on-Wye has a culture of fixing its own problems. I want to commend the group of volunteers who have been organising this. They got together after the final bank left the town in 2018. At the same time, the post office has been going through some turbulent times after the postmaster, Mr Steve Like, stepped down from the business. I want to thank Steve and his family, who have owned the post office in Hay-on-Wye for more than 60 years. It was the end of an era when he stepped down in June.

With those two pressures in mind, a group of volunteers led by Josh Green got together to tackle the issue of cash availability. As well as creating a scheme where customers from different banks can speak to a representative from their bank in the parish hall one day a month, they have got together a large group of businesses that are now offering cashback after the Government stepped forward with the change to the Financial Services Act 2021. I want to celebrate what those volunteers have done. It is a meaningful difference and proves just how important cash is.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on bringing forward this debate. My constituency of Strangford is similar to her own. We have had a number of bank closures and the latest one is Barclays in Newtownards, just 30 minutes away from Portavogie and Cloughey in my constituency. They are closed and the options are away. I agree with the hon. Lady that there is an important parallel between banking and broadband services. More time needs to be committed to improving internet services in rural communities to ensure that constituents can use online banking efficiently, in addition to doing it in person. It doesn’t suit everyone, but it will suit a whole lot of people. The option needs to be there, perhaps as an opportunity for banks and broadband to work together.

I agree with the hon. Member. I hope the Minister will cover that in his summing up. As a beautiful constituency, we have one of the lowest broadband availability rates in the entire country, so those are twin-track problems that we need to fix at the same time.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. She could well be describing Aberconwy: it is beautiful and rural, and it has trouble with broadband and, unfortunately, the withdrawal of banking services. In my constituency, the experience of the residents and small businesses of Llanrwst is that first they saw banking and counter services withdrawn from the town and going down the coast to Llandudno, and they were told that they could travel to Llandudno. Now, they hear that the counter services in Llandudno are closing, at some banks, and moving further along the coast. These are areas that do not have the benefit of extensive public transport, so it is physically difficult to move from the valley to the coast—

I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), too. I will cover later in my speech the issues that have been raised. They are common issues, and that is why we all need to work together. This involves not just the UK Government, but the devolved Administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Northern Ireland.

This proves the point that cash is extremely important. The Lloyds group talks about a group of 3 million cash-critical people. These are not the people that we might expect: 41% of this group are aged between 35 and 54; they earn less than £20,000 a year; and they often rent their home or live in social housing. Therefore, we are not just talking about the elderly, the vulnerable and those who live on their own. We need to ensure that this extremely important group in society has access to cash.

Let me turn to my ask of Government. As I have mentioned, the Government have taken some really positive steps towards addressing the challenges, and there is currently a consultation open on access to cash. The proposals include the Treasury granting powers to require certain firms such as retail banks to provide deposit and withdrawal facilities for customers within certain distances, and the Financial Conduct Authority would have oversight for monitoring and enforcing those requirements. I very much welcome that. Those proposals suggest that the Government are introducing a legal guarantee for consumers and businesses to be able to withdraw and access their cash. That is absolutely what we need. I think that the point about certain distances will be critical for people in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire. We are the largest constituency in England and Wales—the constituency is bigger than Luxembourg—and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bear that in mind as the consultation goes forward. I will certainly respond to it, but it is imperative to remember that miles are not the same in urban areas as they are in rural areas.

Brecon has four banks, and that is great news, but Ystradgynlais, the largest town in my constituency by population, has only one. Builth Wells has one. Hay-on-Wye, as I have said, has none. Crickhowell has none. Rhayader has none. Knighton has none. Since the mid-1990s, the number of bank branches in the UK has been falling steadily.

My Welsh colleague is making important points on the importance of banking infrastructure. In my constituency of Pontypridd, loyal customers whose life savings have been invested in banks are being abandoned by these corporations, which claim to serve the communities that we represent. Does the hon. Member agree with me that it is completely wrong for banks to bale out of local communities such as ours and others across Wales when just a few years ago they had to be bailed out by the public purse themselves?

I certainly agree that it is wrong for banks to withdraw when there are no options left. We need to be really careful. I have worked with and spoken to a number of them in preparation for this debate, and I implore them to remember that we do need physical banking services. We cannot just push them down the line or rely on a certain urban area.

On that point, it has just been announced that Barclays bank in my constituency, in Llandrindod Wells, is about to close. From my office in Llandod, I can see the number of people who use that bank every day, and I am quite surprised that the decision is going ahead. I understand it is too late to influence that, but I make the plea none the less. It will cause considerable problems for people in my constituency: those who live in Knighton or Presteigne, or further north. I again remind the House that it is the largest constituency in England and Wales.

As much as this decision causes a headache for personal banking, businesses will also suffer. It is crucial that we recognise the value of these rural businesses. Farmers rely on good relationships with their banks, for obvious reasons. It is often said that nobody knows how to spend money better than a farmer, and it is really important that we remember how that money gets filtered out right through the rural community. One farmer sustains hundreds of businesses in a rural area, including the vet, the insurance agent, the feed merchant and the contractors that he will work with, so remembering that rural businesses need access to banking infrastructure is so important. I urge the Minister to put some real teeth behind the proposal in the consultation for a right to withdraw cash, again remembering that point about mileage. Some of my constituents who used to rely on Barclays bank in Llandrindod Wells are now going to need to travel 20 or 30 miles to get cash to pay their bills, or to give a grandchild their birthday money, so that right is absolutely essential.

The final point I will make is about the importance of banks to the high street, because nobody just pops to the bank as a one-off transaction: they pop into the post office, go into the butcher or go for a coffee. Banks are important parts of a thriving high street—again, I stress the importance of a high street to rural areas, particularly in Brecon and Radnorshire, where we do not have large urban conurbations or city centres. Our high streets are the lifeblood of the rural economy, and it is incredibly important that as we move towards a purely digital platform, we remember the need for face-to-face contact. If the pandemic has demonstrated anything over the past 18 months, it is that we all need and cherish human interaction, and it is incredibly important that we remember the impact that closures like these can have on mental health. Again, I think of the farmers in my constituency who take their cattle to market and then, while they are in Brecon market, go to the high street and into the bank. This is part of an important rural chain, and when one link goes, so goes the rest of it.

I really want the Government to think about the impact that these closures can have. Obviously, we cannot control the commercial decisions that the retail banks make, but I believe we should be doing all we can to preserve rural communities, remembering that rural banking services are so crucial. We talk a lot in this place about levelling up, and rightly so, but there can be no levelling up if we forget rural areas. I urge the Minister to think about that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Gray, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing this debate and on the eloquent way in which she set out a whole range of issues concerning her constituents. I know that she has deep first-hand experience of rural affairs, given her prior role working for the National Farmers Union before she came to this place, and she spoke very clearly about the significance of bank branches for many in rural areas across Wales, England, and indeed Scotland too. I also listened very carefully to the three interventions from the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), and I am keen to address those in my response.

From my first-hand experience growing up in rural Wiltshire, as part of a family running a very small business, I know the significance of bank branches and the central role that they have in the community. However, I also have to recognise that the world that we live in today is very different from the one of a few decades ago. Technological progress means that more consumers and businesses are opting for digital payments and banking, and last year’s figures from UK Finance show that around seven in 10 adults in this country used online banking and eight in 10 used contactless payments. Although cash represented almost a fifth of the total number of payments, this was a reduction from 56% a decade earlier in 2009, so while the longer-term impact of the pandemic on banking is not yet absolutely clear, the switch to those digital methods is likely to have been accelerated by coronavirus. Times are changing and have clearly changed, and digital technology is transforming banking just like ATMs did in the 1960s.

None the less, as we have heard today, bank branches still matter a great deal to many people, and permanent branch closures can be a source of real dismay to communities across the country. Although closures can be upsetting, they are commercial matters and the Government cannot intervene. Indeed, one could argue that the UK’s financial services sector is among the most competitive and productive in the world precisely because it has the flexibility to respond to market changes.

It is also crucial that the impact of branch closures is understood, considered and, where possible, mitigated so that all consumers across the country can continue to access over-the-counter banking services as they choose. As has been mentioned, since 2017 the major high street banks have been signed up to the access to banking standard, which commits banks to ensuring that customers are well informed about branch closures and the reasons behind them, and that customers have options for continued access to banking services, including specialist assistance for those who need more help. That is not some passive intervention. The operation of the standard is monitored and enforced by the independent Lending Standards Board, which holds banks that close branches accountable for their treatment of customers. That means monitoring to see whether they help individual customers to make the transfer to using the Post Office or other solutions.

Last September, banks’ responsibilities around closures were further clarified by the Financial Conduct Authority when it published guidance setting out its expectations of firms that decide to reduce their physical branches or the number of free-to-use ATMs. Under that guidance, which seeks to ensure that customers are treated fairly, banks are expected to consider the impact of planned closures on customers’ everyday banking and cash access needs. In addition, banks should consider alternative access arrangements. On that last point, it is my understanding that within a short distance of the Llandrindod Wells Barclays, which my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned, there are two post offices and two free ATMs. In addition, I note that Lloyds and NatWest provide fortnightly mobile bank branches throughout the constituency.

My hon. Friend quite rightly highlighted the great significance of cash to constituents, and the Government recognise that we have to address that need and the ongoing importance of cash to millions of people, particularly those in vulnerable groups—often the elderly and the poorest. I am therefore glad that LINK has already said that it will protect the broad geographic spread of free-to-use ATMs. It is being held to account against those commitments by the Payment Systems Regulator.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the Government are committed to legislating to protect access to cash for those who need it while ensuring that the UK’s cash infrastructure is sustainable. Clearly, the way it is funded and the way the wholesale system works has to evolve to reflect the changing usage pattern. That is why we brought new laws into effect at the end of June through the Financial Services Act 2021 to support the widespread offering of cashback without a purchase by shops and other businesses. That exciting development unlocks the potential for cashback without a purchase. It will provide a valuable facility for cash users and will play a major role in the UK’s cash infrastructure. As my hon. Friend highlighted, cashback without a purchase has been trialled in Hay-on-Wye—clearly a community with a strong independent streak, from what she said—for some months under the community access to cash pilots.

In addition, earlier this month we published a consultation outlining broader legislative proposals to protect access to cash. Those proposals seek to ensure that people need to travel only a reasonable distance to pay in or take out cash, and that the right regulatory oversight for cash access is in place for the future. My hon. Friend made a point about the rurality of her distinctive and distinguished constituency, with respect to its geographical size. This is obviously a matter that we must consider carefully as we move forward with these proposals.

Together, these measures will support the use of cash and help local businesses to continue accepting it by ensuring reasonable access to cash depositing facilities for small and medium-sized enterprises. The Post Office is also playing a key role; the Post Office banking framework allows 95% of businesses and 99% of personal banking customers to deposit cheques, check their balances and withdraw and deposit cash, across a network of 11,500 post office branches across the country. The Post Office is also required to ensure that 95% of the total UK rural population is within three miles of an outlet. I am pleased to tell hon. Members that the Post Office is trialling bank hubs as part of the eight community access to cash pilots around the country that I mentioned earlier. Rochford in Essex and Cambuslang in south Lanarkshire are benefiting from those shared branches. They are a significant innovation from the business hubs that were on offer a few years ago, and I am very pleased with the direction of travel in that area. The hubs will offer access to face-to-face community banking services provided by the banks with the most customers in each area. In addition, Hay-on-Wye’s post office is being refurbished to better support banking services, as part of the eight pilots. I look forward to learning lessons from the pilots and to the future industry models for supporting access to cash that they will help to inform.

A final point, which has been raised, is that there is a need to improve mobile and broadband coverage in rural areas, to make the immense benefits and opportunities of online products open to all. That is why the Government remain committed to delivering UK-wide gigabit connectivity as soon as possible, with £5 billion to support roll-out in the hardest to reach areas. As the Prime Minister mentioned in his levelling-up speech last week, we have made great progress. By the end of this year, 60% of the country will have a gigabit connection. We are working with industry to target a minimum of 85% giga-capable coverage in just four years in 2025. We will seek to accelerate roll-out further to get as close to 100% as possible.

However, while 4G coverage continues to improve in rural areas, admittedly it is not yet as good as in towns and cities—again, Members rightly raised that. As a result, the Government are providing £510 million for the shared rural network. Mobile operators will contribute an additional £532 million as part of this deal, which will extend high-quality 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025. We are also focused on removing the practical barriers that stand in the way of our broadband and mobile coverage targets, through our barrier busting task force. We are looking at the difficult challenges in some communities, many of which are in rural areas, to try to make a real difference on the ground.

While technology is continually changing, the principles that guide the Government’s approach to banking services remain entirely consistent. I have been in this role now for more than three and a half years, and I continue to work with banks, the Post Office and industry stakeholders to try to find practical solutions. We are working to ensure that all consumers, in both rural and urban areas, can access the services they need. We are committed to legislating to protect access to cash for those who need it, and to maintaining the sustainable cash infrastructure that the country needs. We are determined to help the whole country benefit from better broadband and mobile coverage, so that everyone who wishes to use digital and online services can do so.

I will continue work with colleagues across the House, and with my hon. Friend, on these important matters in the coming weeks and months. I hope that that is a reasonable appraisal of and response to the issues that she rightly raised this morning. I am happy to continue correspondence with all Members, because I know that this is something that concerns our constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended .