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Westminster Hall

Volume 732: debated on Thursday 11 May 2023

Westminster Hall

Thursday 11 May 2023

[Rushanara Ali in the Chair]

Backbench Business

Allergy Awareness Week

[Relevant documents: e-petition 589716, Appoint an Allergy Tsar as a champion for people living with allergies; and e-petition 585304, ‘Owen’s Law’Change the law around allergy labelling in UK restaurants.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Allergy Awareness Week.

This afternoon I will raise a number of points about improving allergy services in the NHS, but first I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate.

What we are talking about matters to an awful lot of people. Millions across the country suffer from at least one allergy. It is estimated that 44% of adults and some 50% of children in the UK have one or more allergic disorders. While allergies have increased globally in prevalence, complexity and severity over the last 60 years or so, the UK rates are among the highest in the world.

I pay tribute to the allergy community for its contribution throughout the year, which was showcased during the recent Allergy Awareness Week. I acknowledge the extraordinary work of charities, research bodies, academics and health practitioners, as well as numerous individuals and families, all fighting for support and help on food labelling, NHS services, awareness in schools and much more, given the extraordinary growth in allergic conditions over the last couple of decades.

It is worth being clear from the outset what we are talking about. An allergy is a hypersensitivity reaction, or an exaggerated sensitivity, to substances known as allergens, which are normally tolerated across most communities. Examples include peanuts, milk, shellfish, cats, medicine and grass pollens. These can trigger harmful antibodies and the release of inflammatory chemicals, causing symptoms such as sneezing, itches, rashes and falls in blood pressure, yet they may also cause narrowing of airways, shortness of breath and wheezing, and swelling that, if in the mouth, throat or airway, causes severe difficulty in breathing and can be life-threatening.

There is a modern-day epidemic in allergy, one that I would argue is neglected by the NHS. We are all aware of recent high-profile, tragic cases of fatal anaphylaxis brought on by issues such as food labelling, shortcomings in NHS service provision, and a lack of public understanding across the wider community. Those recent tragedies have brought all that into sharp focus, and they are occurring with a regularity that should worry us all.

The figures speak for themselves. One third of the population—some 20 million people in the UK—are living with an allergic condition, and 5 million have a severe enough condition to require specialist care. Fatal and near-fatal reactions regularly occur due to foods, drugs and insect stings, and have been increasing in recent years. There has been a 615% increase in hospital admissions related to allergic disease in the last 20 years.

The percentages of children diagnosed with allergic rhinitis and with eczema have trebled over the last 30 years. More than 200,000 people now require the prescription of emergency adrenaline due to the severity of their allergic condition, and each year new births add some 43,000 cases of child allergy to the population in need. The figures are quite extraordinary. Despite all that, specialist services delivered by trained paediatric allergists are available to only a minority of those with severe disease.

What is so frustrating for so many is that over the last two decades a series of reports have consistently demonstrated the prevalence of allergic disease, the patient need and the lack of UK service provision. I will list some of the reports. There were two Royal College of Physicians reports, in 2003 and 2010, on allergy and the unmet need. The 2003 report was so disturbing and so scathing that in 2006 the Department of Health conducted its own review of allergy services. We also had a 2004 House of Commons Health Committee report on the provision of allergy services and a 2007 House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report on allergy. In autumn 2021, the all-party parliamentary group on allergy, alongside the National Allergy Strategy Group, published “Meeting the challenges of the National Allergy Crisis”.

All those reports consistently highlighted how allergy remains poorly managed across the NHS due to lack of training and expertise. All recommended significant improvement in specialist services, as well as improved knowledge and awareness in primary care. They all talked about the need for a national allergy action plan, and for a national lead person responsible for allergy services and provision at NHS England or the Department of Health and Social Care—often referred to in shorthand as an allergy tsar.

That is not to say that nothing has changed over the last 20 years. We have seen National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines on allergy and care pathways for children with allergic disease. Natasha’s law came into force on 1 October 2021 to regulate labelling on pre-packaged food for direct sale. But the truth is that very little has changed over the last 20 years, apart from the increased prevalence of the conditions.

The economic case for prevention-orientated allergy services is strong. The estimated cost of allergy-related illness was calculated in 2004 as £1 billion a year. Since then, admissions to hospital with anaphylaxis have increased by 200% to 300%. Primary care visits for allergy have increased, now accounting for 8% of total GP consultations. Put simply, the complexity and severity of allergy has increased, as has the number of patients affected, placing huge strain on the system. Those are the basic facts and change is long overdue. Beyond the statistics, for the growing number of people living with allergic disease, their conditions can have a significant negative impact on the lives that they and their families live. It is frightening and restrictive to live with a condition that could cause a severe or life-threatening reaction literally at any time of the day.

Each report I mentioned concludes that allergy has largely been ignored and is poorly managed across the NHS due to a lack of training and expertise. The core problem is the very small number of consultants in adult and paediatric allergy, and the fact that most GPs receive no training in allergy. That basic mismatch between the rising demand and the poor service needs correction. There are only 11 specialist allergy training posts for doctors in England and only two qualify each year, despite the 2004 report recommending some 20 years ago that 40 doctors a year should qualify. There are too few consultants, and only 40 adult allergists and a similar number of paediatric allergists working in a very small number of allergy centres.

The day-to-day reality is that NHS patients face a postcode lottery. They are hampered by wrong referrals and re-referrals, or they get no referral. They face denial of choice and of the benefits of the improvement in allergy care. In short, there is significant unmet need. Paradoxically, the UK is one of the world’s leaders in allergy research.

The reports that I have referred to, which span some 20 years, offer an agenda for change. All four contain basic recommendations; there are themes that recur all the time. First, we need a national plan for allergy. We should make allergy a priority and invest in a national plan led by a designated Department of Health and Social Care civil servant or NHS lead with sufficient authority to implement change—a national clinical director for allergy.

Secondly, there is a need for specialist care. We should expand the specialist workforce as a priority and ensure that training programmes prioritise allergy so that specialists of the future are appropriately trained and can deliver safe care.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that all GPs and healthcare professionals in primary care have knowledge of allergic disease, that allergy is included in the GP curriculum and exit examination, and that allergy education is improved for already qualified GPs in ongoing professional appraisal. On a positive note, I should add that the Royal College of General Practitioners has recently added allergy to new GP exams, which is a welcome intervention.

Fourthly, we need to ensure that local commissioners understand the allergy needs of their populations. Commissioners should ensure access to adult and paediatric allergy consultants and allergy pathways.

Allergy remains a small specialism; not only do patients not know where to turn, but healthcare professionals themselves often do not know the best pathway to send their patients on. GPs receive so little training and the responsibility for managing adult allergy services remains unclear and ambiguous.

Every sufferer should have a right to receive quality care. To achieve that, Allergy UK has developed a patients’ charter, in consultation with patients and clinicians, to deliver a gold standard of patient rights and care for those living with allergic disease. It calls for a healthcare system that recognises allergy as a chronic long-term condition and provides continuity of care and timely diagnoses. It should not be beyond our collective wit to provide that, yet recent NHS reforms may mean that we are heading in a very different direction.

Today, 42 statutory integrated care systems, each with an integrated care board and an integrated care partnership, are responsible for planning and funding NHS services. It was recently announced that allergy services would be commissioned by ICBs and not centralised. What does that mean for the postcode lottery in the system and for the development of a national plan?

Allergy UK reports that 93% of ICBs responsible for commissioning services to support the allergic community have not even the scantest picture of the potential needs of their populations in terms of allergy services. Not one ICB held data on whether there were any specialist allergy nurses or dieticians in its region.

As it is, specialist allergy services are very limited outside the south-east. Two hospitals in the south-east—Guy’s and St Thomas’s, and Southampton General—are accredited as World Allergy Organisation centres of excellence, but even those living in the south-east of England struggle to access decent care and the right care. The north and the west of England, along with Wales, are especially deprived of services. As I mentioned, there are only 40 adult allergy consultants in the UK and even fewer paediatric allergy specialists. That is equivalent to one adult allergy specialist per 1.3 million of the adult population. As far back as 2003, the Royal College of Physicians advised that 200 consultant adult allergists were required.

I do not want to sound too negative, so I will point to two important recent developments. The first is an example of what can be done on the ground. Allergy UK recently invested £500,000 in a research project with the University of Edinburgh to trial a new nurse-led allergy centre in primary care. Thirty-eight clinical practices were allowed to refer patients to two specialist allergy nurses, who held six clinical sessions each week.

The trial resulted in 426 patients being referred to the specialist allergy nurse clinics, of whom 53% were young people and adults with a history of anaphylaxis or suspected anaphylaxis. Three hundred and eighty-three of the patients seen in a clinic would otherwise have been referred on to secondary care. Only 5% of those had an onward referral to secondary care. Eighty-two per cent. said they had seen improvements in their allergic conditions since attending the clinic, which is a very positive result.

The trial demonstrated that a nurse-led, primary care- based allergy clinic can work for patients and take pressure off other NHS services. Allergy UK is now calling for each ICS to have a fully funded specialist allergy service with a specialist allergy nurse and one specialist dietician. That sounds to me like quite a practical intervention that could achieve a lot very quickly.

Secondly, I want to acknowledge some progress in the Department over the last year and a half. The previous Minister for care and mental health, the right hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), demonstrated real commitment in this area, and I put on the record our appreciation for what she did. Since autumn 2021, we have established a work programme and an ongoing dialogue between civil servants and representatives of the National Allergy Strategy Group.

The NASG has held several meetings with the long-term conditions team in the DHSC to discuss the need for a lead and expert advisers to support on development of a national plan for allergy. A proposal and terms of reference have been drafted, and they are currently within the DHSC. The hope is that those discussions will continue and move forward so that an expert group can be established in the very near future. That could be one of the most significant outcomes of the last 20 years. I commend the Government for that, and look forward to the Minister—I hope—recommitting to that programme of work and partnership working this afternoon.

I could have discussed many other issues today, including labelling, allergies in schools, and the regulation of products in takeaways and restaurants. On Monday, we will have a chance to discuss some of that territory when we debate the two e-petitions relevant to this debate. The first, e-petition 589716, calls for the appointment of an allergy tsar as a champion for people living with allergies. Over 20,000 people have signed it to date. The second, e-petition 585304, relates to “Owen’s law,” a change in the law on allergy labelling in UK restaurants. I think over 13,000 people have signed that petition to date. I congratulate the organisers. Tens of thousands of people are mobilising and demanding change, and businesses are responding too: in March 2023, the bosses of 11 leading food businesses, including Tesco and Sainsbury’s, called for clearer rules on food labelling following recent tragic and preventable deaths.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Health Committee’s landmark report, “The Provision of Allergy Services”. The report recommended implementing a “modern allergy service” with specialist allergy doctors and a focus on primary care. Simply put, the vast majority of those recommendations remain unmet. We have lost 20 years, and nothing has really changed. On behalf of the many millions of people suffering from allergy conditions, I urge the Government to acknowledge allergy as a public health priority. Lives, as well as the quality of life of many of our fellow citizens, depend on it.

It is great to see you in the Chair today, Ms Ali. It is a pleasure to speak in today’s important debate on allergy. I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing it, and I echo many of the sentiments that he expressed. I thank all the excellent campaigners across the UK whose lives have been impacted by allergies, especially those families who have tragically lost loved ones and continue to campaign to raise public awareness and to lobby for policy changes. They are an inspiration to us all.

As the Member of Parliament for Old Bexley and Sidcup, let me also highlight the crucial and often lifesaving work of Allergy UK, which is based in Sidcup and supports individuals and families across the country via a range of allergy-related guidance and services. Those include a helpline and a dietician service to help the parents of young children who have symptoms of food allergy and have not yet been referred to a dietician. I had the privilege of visiting the hard-working team in Sidcup last year to see its work at first hand. I am very sorry that Carla will soon be leaving, and I thank her for her fantastic leadership and all her hard work for the all-party parliamentary group on allergy.

As we have heard already, an awareness among patients and in the NHS of how allergies can impact our health can be a matter of life and death. That is why I support Allergy UK’s mission for everyone in the UK to take allergy seriously. I must admit that I never did so before I met the team and allergy experts from across the country. After I mentioned that I suffer with hay fever each year, they gave me more information on the various types of pollen than my brain could digest, and lots of great advice on how to manage my allergies. If they are watching today, I promise them that I did listen—I am sniffling a lot less than I would normally at this time of year.

Mine is just one relatively minor case, and hay fever is a common example of an allergy. Living with any kind of allergy is challenging and can impact the quality of a person’s life, but food allergies can trigger very severe reactions and, without emergency treatment, present a risk to life. Understanding that is vital, not just for patients but for medical professionals.

It is estimated that 41 million people in the UK live with allergic disease and that 50% of children are affected by one or more allergic disorders. However, there is a significant gap in both awareness and healthcare services for those affected by this disease of the immune system. That is why I signed the patient charter, and why I back Allergy UK’s campaigns to raise awareness, including in schools, and to introduce allergy nurse and dietician services in GP practices.

Regional integrated care boards have a clear role to play in the new NHS structure in helping to close that gap. I look forward to hearing more from my hon. Friend the Minister about how the Government can support that endeavour with the significant money being allocated to the NHS to help to improve health outcomes, and how the Government can address the estimated £1 billion annual cost of NHS prescriptions to help to manage allergy symptoms and the increase in hospital admissions highlighted by the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham.

The service specification sets out that providers should deliver a diagnostic package for the investigation of suspected allergic diseases, including initial consultation and follow-up in a dedicated allergy clinic and specialised allergy tests, but the evidence is clear that we need more specialists across the country to avoid a postcode lottery for individuals and families. There are resources available to support healthcare professionals in making referrals to specialist services, including guidance from the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, but we must continue to promote them to medical professionals.

We have made progress in recent years. The most obvious example is Natasha’s law, which came into force on 1 October 2021. It requires all food retailers and operators to display full ingredient and allergen information on every food item they sell pre-packed for direct sale. That gives the millions throughout the UK who are living with food allergies and intolerances better protection and more confidence in the food they buy. I again thank all the campaigners across the country, including Natasha’s family and Allergy UK, as we continue to raise awareness and make vital calls, not just in Allergy Awareness Week but throughout the year.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Ali, and to follow the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French). I hugely congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing this really important debate. I am pleased that this important issue has been given the attention in Parliament that it deserves. As my hon. Friend said, on Monday colleagues will be debating two widely signed petitions on food labelling and allergy healthcare. Given that Allergy Awareness Week was just a few weeks ago, it is right that colleagues come together this afternoon to mark its importance.

I put on the record my heartfelt thanks to the campaign groups and individuals who got in touch with me ahead of this debate, including Owen’s Law, Allergy UK and the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation. It is thanks to their tireless hard work, often following tragic events, that we are to have this important series of debates over the coming days.

Marking Allergy Awareness Week gives us a timely opportunity to discuss an important issue that affects thousands upon thousands of people, if not millions, every year. Often, their difficulties go unnoticed. A shocking one in three people in the UK are living with some sort of allergic condition, and sadly that figure rises to one in two among children. I know that all too well because this issue is personal to me: when my son Sullivan was six months old, my husband and I made the terrifying discovery that he is severely allergic to peanuts. He had to be rushed to hospital, which would make any mother’s stomach drop with fear. I am pleased to report that he is now a happy, healthy four-year-old, but we will forever need to pay extremely close attention to what he eats and comes into contact with. Hundreds of parents across the UK can speak of similar experiences.

I was shocked to learn that there has been a massive 600% increase in allergy-related hospital admissions in the past 20 years, but despite that massive influx there are just 40 adult allergy consultants across the whole UK. That equates to one allergy specialist per 1.3 million adults.

Ahead of today’s debate, a constituent emailed me to share her experiences of caring for her son, who has severe allergies: he is allergic to milk, wheat, egg, soy and peanuts and to pollen and dust mites, among many other things. As I am sure hon. Members can imagine, her son’s condition has massively affected his quality of life, as well as hers as a mother. Navigating daily life is a constant struggle for my constituent and her son in ways that those of us who do not live with debilitating allergies give little thought to. She told me that her son’s ability to participate in activities that other children routinely enjoy has been completely hampered by his condition. It is a truly heartbreaking situation for all involved. One of the main barriers that my constituent and her son face is the complete lack of joined-up thinking across services, including education, healthcare and hospitality. She feels that there is a real lack of awareness and understanding of what her son requires in order to be given the basic opportunities that we take for granted. Among those everyday issues is food labelling in hospitality.

I am pleased that one of the petitions to be debated next week is on Owen’s law, which would see stronger regulation on allergy labelling in restaurants. For colleagues who are not aware, Owen Carey tragically died of anaphylaxis in 2017 after eating chicken marinated in buttermilk, to which he was severely allergic. On the menu at the restaurant he ate at, the chicken was erroneously listed as plain grilled. Owen’s family have been tirelessly campaigning for a change in the law, and they have my full support.

I welcome the fact that the UK Government stated last year that the Food Standards Agency was considering how to improve food labelling, and I am pleased that Labour has acknowledged the importance of clearly labelled allergen information, but for many families, such as my constituent and her son, action is urgently needed now, not at some point down the line. The current regulations require hospitality businesses to provide consumers with information about 14 allergens, but, crucially, the format in which that information is to be conveyed is not specified in law and can vary greatly in certain restaurants.

Owen’s law would ensure that accurate allergen information is put on the face of restaurant menus and that there is more stringent training for staff. Together, these simple measures would make an enormous difference and prevent any further tragic deaths like Owen’s. The changes would also make a small but significant difference to the lives of those who are blighted by allergies and anaphylaxis. For my constituent and her son, clear and standardised allergen labelling would make navigating the otherwise extremely difficult experience of attending any restaurant just that little bit easier.

The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation secured a monumental victory in changing the law on pre-packaged food labelling following the tragic death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse in 2016, but it is absolutely right to say that we have so much more work to do to prevent us from letting vulnerable people down any further. The foundation is now calling for the appointment of an allergy tsar at the heart of the NHS to champion people with allergies across the UK and ensure that they receive appropriate support. I would welcome that move.

I hope that the Minister is able to feed back to her colleagues in the Government on the proposals as far as NHS England is concerned. I also invite her to set out a timeline for when we can expect Owen’s law to be implemented. Allergies can ruin lives, but often that is forgotten by so many. I sincerely hope that the Minister recognises the severity of this issue. I look forward to working with her and her Government to tackle the issue at its root, once and for all.

May I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing today’s debate and for the comprehensive manner in which he opened it? He said much that I can agree with. Indeed, there is not that much left to say, because it was a very comprehensive introduction.

I am grateful to the patient charity Allergy UK for its very informative briefing ahead of the debate and for its sterling work over more than three decades in raising awareness and supporting people living with allergies, who represent a significant proportion of the population across these islands. Allergy Awareness Week was held from 24 to 28 April and was initiated by Allergy UK, which is urging every NHS integrated care board in the UK to appoint at least one allergy nurse and dietician. Allergy UK believes that this measure would enhance the standard and the promptness of the care, advice and support available to allergy sufferers. It is hard to disagree with that. We really must ensure that all people living with allergies can access the best possible care and support, and we must recognise that rising food prices are having a disproportionate impact on many of those with allergies. We must also acknowledge that climate change, which is extending the length of the pollen season, is having an adverse effect on many people.

Across the UK, 21 million people have an allergy. That is one of the highest rates in the world. We have seen an increase of 650% in hospital admissions for allergic conditions over the past 20 years, which is truly staggering. An allergy is the immune system’s reaction to normally harmless substances such as pollen, food or house dust mites, which can trigger an adverse response in allergic individuals, ranging from localised itching to potentially fatal anaphylaxis. According to Allergy UK, the most common causes of allergic reactions are pollen from trees and grasses; proteins secreted from house dust mites; mould; food such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk and eggs; pets such as cats and dogs, and other furry or hairy animals; insects such as wasps and bees; and even medicines. It is quite a lengthy list.

I have been fortunate not to have any allergies. Looking back on my life, I do not recall allergies being on the same scale as they are now. When I was a young man, I was sent to school with peanuts as a treat on occasion. I thought that was great, but we would never dream of doing it now.

The world has changed quite dramatically, and not for the best. Allergies are very common in children; some go away as a child gets older, but not all do. We know that fewer pensioners have allergies and that incidence is significantly higher among under-35s. It has also been suggested that we may be paying the price for being too hygienic and insufficiently exposed to bacteria that would help to train the immune system. Sometimes in life it seems that you can never win.

In Scotland, most allergic conditions are treated through primary care. The Scottish Government are committed to ensuring that people living with an allergic condition receive the care they need when they need it. GPs in primary care are at the heart of the healthcare system. The Scottish Government are investing in multidisciplinary teams to increase the capacity in primary care, which will allow patients to be seen at the right time by the right person.

Asthma continues to be the most common allergic condition, accounting for 69% of the approximately 5,100 allergy-related hospital admissions each year in Scotland. The Scottish Government are providing guidance to education authorities, health boards and schools to fulfil their obligations to students and their healthcare requirements. In December 2017 they published guidance for supporting students’ healthcare needs, including a section on allergic reactions and anaphylaxis. I think we would probably all benefit from knowing a bit more about what to do if someone is exposed to that situation. I would be lost if it happened in front of me in my office, so I think there is a lesson there for all of us. We need to know more and to be able to help when something goes wrong.

Food is a large factor. I welcome the new legislation, which has been referred to as Natasha’s law, requiring food businesses in Scotland and throughout the rest of the UK to label all pre-packed food for direct sale with a complete ingredient list. The law, which came into effect in October 2021, was implemented after the sad death of 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who suffered a fatal allergic reaction to a pre-packed sandwich containing undeclared sesame seeds. It applies to products such as pre-wrapped sandwiches, fast food and daily items such as cheese and meat that are already wrapped for service. The Food Standards Scotland chief executive, Geoff Ogle, said:

“This is a huge step in helping improve the quality of life for around two million people living with food allergies in the UK—with 200,000 of those living here in Scotland.”

I echo his comments. I also echo the calls from other Members to see more progress with Owen’s law so that anyone can eat out safely.

Grocery prices are continuing to climb, and those with allergies or special dietary requirements are being disproportionately hit. I urge the UK Government to better support people with allergies during the cost of living crisis. Statistics from January this year show that households with specific dietary requirements can be paying up to 73% more for their food than those who do not need to buy “free from” products, according to analysis by the allergy team. Pea milk is £2 per litre, roughly 50% more expensive than cows’ milk. Gluten-free penne pasta at Morrisons jumped by 125% in 12 months, from 60p in January 2022 to £1.35 this January. The cost of Sainsbury’s Nurishh vegan cheddar-style cheese slices alternative increased by 67% from £1.50 to £2.50, while the cost of Alpro soya growing-up milk at Asda increased by 27% from £1.50 to £1.90. For a lot of people who have no alternative, that is simply not affordable.

In Scotland, people who have been clinically diagnosed with coeliac disease or dermatitis herpetiformis—I probably pronounced that as badly as I typed it last night—can receive a range of gluten-free food on prescription at no charge. Perhaps the UK should look at that. There is more that each of our nations need to do for the increasing numbers of people who are living with allergies. That does not just go for health treatments; we must also tackle the cost of living and climate change.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ali. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing this debate and for his continued commitment to this issue. The petitions that are coming forward highlight the level of concern and interest in this area. It is right that we are debating it in this place.

We are witnessing a burgeoning rise in allergic disease in the UK. This country is in the top three in the world for the highest incidence of allergies. One third of the UK population are living with a condition and, perhaps more worryingly, 50% of children are affected by one or more allergic disorders. They are stressful and worrying conditions, with continual and often costly adjustments to guard against allergic reactions. In a few tragic cases, they can be fatal. Allergies can cause not only symptoms such as sneezing, itches, rashes and falls in blood pressure, but airway narrowing, shortness of breath, wheezing and swelling, which in the mouth area leads to severe difficulty in breathing and can be life-threatening.

As we have heard, allergies are most common in children. As my hon. Friend said, it is terrifying when people, particularly children, are rushed to A&E, sometimes with tragic results. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) highlighted her experience with her own child, and it is something that I too have witnessed with a family member.

We have heard about the too frequent fatalities, mostly of young people, including Natasha Ednan-Laperouse. It is thanks to her parents and others that full ingredient and allergen labelling on pre-packed food for sale was introduced in October 2021. We pay tribute to them and to all families who have raised awareness in such circumstances. It is not something that any parent would want to have to do.

We have also heard about the incredible rise in hospital admissions over the past 20 years. I agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) that it was perhaps not recognised much when we were at school. The growth has been quite phenomenal. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) has found out what we have all found out: that the great privilege of coming to this place is learning so much from our constituents and campaigners about issues that we may not have been aware of, and being able to present them in this place.

We now know that there are only 40 allergy consultants in the UK, and even fewer in paediatrics—the equivalent of only one per 1.3 million of the adult population. As far back as 2003, the Royal College of Physicians advised that 200 consultant allergists were required. Despite further warnings and criticism over the past two decades, the provision is wholly inadequate. The first Health Committee report highlighting the inadequacy of service was in 2004. In 2006, there was a report so scathing that the then Labour Government’s Department of Health conducted a review. In 2007, 2010 and 2021, we had further reports from the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Royal College of Pathologists and most recently the APPG, all of which further acknowledged the continued failures without much progress.

After 13 years, we look forward to the Minister giving us a bit of hope for the future. It is vital that there are allergy services across all integrated care systems, but as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham and Rainham, more than half of ICBs have said that they do not hold that data and are not across the issues in their own populations. Last year, the then care Minister, the right hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), said that

“we will continue to support people living with allergies through NIHR research and exploring and investing in new treatments.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 134-135WH.]

We would welcome an update from today’s Minister on what steps have been taken to ensure that allergy services are available in all ICS areas.

The NHS’s capacity to tackle allergic disease has been lowered by the unprecedented pressures it is facing under this Conservative Government. More than 7 million people are waiting for NHS treatment, compared with more than 4 million before the pandemic. They are waiting in pain and discomfort, on record waiting lists, and there are staff vacancies of more than 100,000. Those awaiting treatment for allergies face long wait times as well as delayed diagnosis and treatment. That, in turn, increases the chance of more severe allergic reactions developing, which will often require admission to secondary care— something that none of us should want to see. Again, that is increasing the pressure on services by taking up time in A&E and is resulting in more expensive treatments.

Will the Minister explain what her Government are doing to tackle the waiting times for diagnosis and treatment? Last year, the then Minister also stated:

“The FSA is currently undertaking a programme of work to improve the quality of life for people living with food hypersensitivity and provide support to make safe, informed food choices to effectively manage risk.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 134WH.]

Those are words that I am sure today’s Minister recognises. Again, we would all welcome an update on where that work has got to.

There is hope for people living with an allergy. Given the right amount of research funding in the next couple of decades, treatments can be found that will potentially eradicate many allergies. I would be grateful if the Minister set out what action is being taken to support forward-looking research into potentially lifesaving treatments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ali. I thank the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham (Jon Cruddas) for securing a debate on this important issue, and for his continued work advocating on behalf of those with allergies, particularly through chairing the all-party parliamentary group on allergy.

Millions of people, many of them children, are affected by allergy, so I am sure that the points raised by hon. Members will resonate with families across the country. My brother has asthma, which at times has had a severe impact on his life, and which can be very frightening. I also have a close cousin who has multiple food allergies; I remember that when we were children, those allergies could be worrying or even frightening. Members here and many people across the country have experience, whether directly or through close family and friends, of allergies that can make life really difficult and at times very scary.

Among other things, the hon. Member for Dagenham and Rainham spoke about the huge number of people affected by allergies, their increasing prevalence, and the resulting increasing need for healthcare and support. He also spoke about how frightening and restricted life can be for people living with a severe allergy, and the need for more specialist NHS staff and generalist allergy training. He acknowledged that the UK is a world leader in allergy research, and I heard his several clear asks for Government support for people affected by allergies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French) is a hay fever sufferer, but he spoke today because his constituency hosts Allergy UK, which does very important work to raise awareness of allergies, and to support people with allergies and their families. He spoke of the importance of diagnostic services, the need for specialists, and the variation across the country in the services and support available. He also spoke about the progress we have made in recent years, which includes, very importantly, the introduction of Natasha’s law, which has improved food labelling. I thank him for the work he is doing to raise awareness of allergies and their impact on people’s lives.

The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) spoke about her personal experience with her son, and how she found out about his allergy. It must have been extremely alarming to find out, when he was only six months old, how allergic he is to peanuts; I can imagine that that was just at the point when he might have been moving on to solid foods. Parents do not know what they will find out. I can imagine how alarming it must have been to rush to hospital with such a small child. Clearly, there are things that must make life difficult day to day for her son, but I am glad that it sounds as though he is doing well after that very frightening experience. She also talked about the hard work of campaign groups, including the amazingly effective campaigning of families who have tragically lost loved ones as a result of their allergies. She also spoke about the huge increase in hospital admissions in the last 20 years of people who have severe allergic reactions.

Like the hon. Lady and other hon. Members, I recognise the work of all the organisations that support people with allergies, including charities such as Allergy UK, Anaphylaxis UK and the National Allergy Strategy Group, which has been instrumental in ensuring that the voices of all those affected by allergy are heard across Government.

This debate has the heading “Allergy Awareness Week”, but it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to mention, as other hon. Members have done, other allergy debates happening next Monday, involving the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), who has responsibility for primary care and public health. One debate that he will respond to next Monday will cover vital issues about food safety, which have been raised in this debate. I will refrain from talking at too much length about those issues, because I know that he will cover them substantially on Monday.

That being said, I pay tribute to the work being done to support better food labelling, which is being spearheaded by families who have been bereaved following the tragic deaths of their children from severe anaphylactic reactions. Their campaigning has already led to Natasha’s law, introduced by the Government in 2021. I hope that it will protect and reassure those living with allergy.

Allergy Awareness Week’s focus on allergy support from GPs and specialist staff makes a lot of sense. Most people can be treated through locally commissioned services, for which integrated care boards are responsible, and GPs clearly play a crucial role as the first point of contact for many people with allergies. We know the huge demand for primary care services and the pressures that GPs are under. That is why the Government are investing in and increasing the primary care workforce. In fact, we already have a quarter more staff in primary care than we did in 2019, and 2,000 more GPs.

Looking ahead, we have increased the number of GP training places. Last year, the highest ever number of doctors accepted a GP training place; there were over 4,000 trainees—up from around 2,500 in 2014. That means that there will be more GPs who can be the primary care point of contact for those with allergies. In recent years, there has also been a 100% fill rate for doctors in the two relevant specialist training pathways—allergy and immunology. Many hon. Members spoke about the importance of specialists in this area.

The number of people with allergies is set to increase even further, and NHS England takes into account future and current demand when considering the training needs of the workforce. Hon. Members will know that NHS England is soon to publish the long-term NHS workplace plan, which will include projections for the number of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals needed in five, 10 and 15 years’ time.

Specialist allergy services are provided for patients with severe allergic conditions, or those who have common allergic conditions but require specialist treatment. Those services are jointly commissioned by NHS England specialised commissioning and integrated care boards, in line with the published “Prescribed Specialised Services Manual”. Specialised services must comply with the relevant specification. For allergy, that includes the need for physicians, dieticians and nurses who are trained in allergy, and who keep up to date through continuing professional development on specialised allergy services. As Allergy UK’s patient charter outlines, it is crucial that people with allergies have access to quality care, underpinned by skilled healthcare professionals, and can access services wherever they live.

There have been calls over recent years—I have heard them echoed today—for stronger leadership on allergy. I am pleased to take this opportunity to outline the allergy leadership that we already have in place. In October 2022, Dr Claire Bethune was appointed national speciality adviser for specialised immunology and allergy. Dr Bethune chairs the NHS England clinical reference group that provides clinical advice and leadership on the specialised immunology services, and advises on how specialised services can best be delivered.

Clinical reference groups, through their patient and public voice members, rightly ensure that patients and the public are involved in any changes to the commissioning of special services. The specialised immunology and allergy services clinical reference group is commencing a review of the specialised allergy services specification. The outcome will be an updated specification that references up-to-date guidance and takes into account the latest evidence base. It will clearly define the standards of care for commissioned specialised services, and notably will cover the transition to adult services.

That work is not the only thing we are doing to support children and young people with allergy. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has produced a range of guidance to support the care of people with allergies, including specific guidance on food allergy in under-19s. The guidance covers assessing and managing food allergy in under-19s, including referral to secondary or specialist care as appropriate. It has recommendations on what information and support should be provided to the child or young person and their family. That includes signposting to the invaluable work done by organisations such as Allergy UK and Anaphylaxis UK, which have a wealth of information on how to live well with an allergy.

NICE also has more specific guidance available on diagnostics and specific treatments for allergies. That is not limited to food allergies. I urge all those who are involved in the care of people with allergies to familiarise themselves with the information available. The NICE guidance, alongside the service specification and training materials I mentioned, represent a comprehensive portfolio of resources that healthcare professionals and commissioners can draw on to ensure that people with allergies receive the right care to live healthy and independent lives.

I hope that hon. Members will be reassured by some of the measures that I have outlined. I assure them that the Government are committed to a high standard of ongoing care and support for the many people in this country living with allergies. Together with the Minister who has responsibility for primary care and public health, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, I will continue to look at what more we can do to address the needs of the huge and growing number of people affected by allergies, and at the asks of hon. Members. Finally, I thank all hon. Members here for their work in keeping the spotlight on this important issue, so that allergy awareness remains constantly in the public eye, not just in Allergy Awareness Week each year.

I thank the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for their positive words, as well as others who contributed to the debate. It seems that across the political aisle there is common agreement about the escalating problem and the need for viable remedies, as well as a basic right to proper care for all our fellow citizens experiencing those problems. They should not have to wait any longer.

I will make one political point. There is an election coming, and if a party was to really grip this issue and prioritise it, they could achieve much, given the sense of an epidemic out there. I do a lot of work in this area, and as soon as I talk about it I am inundated with people’s experiences. I have listened to colleagues in the Chamber, and am struck by the number of people with direct personal experience of the issue. It speaks to what is happening in the country. Any political party that could tap into that could gain much from it—but enough of the low politics.

In conclusion, I echo what colleagues have said and thank the allergy community. We were going to have this debate in Allergy Awareness Week, but it got bumped for reasons relating to the coronation. That is a pity, but I am glad that we have given an airing to some of the issues. I put on record the appreciation that we all have for the practitioners and healthcare professionals dealing with allergy; for Allergy UK; for members of the National Allergy Strategy Group; for Anaphylaxis UK; for the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation; for the researchers in the area seeking new remedies; and for the insights of all the families and campaigners fighting on behalf of those with allergic conditions. That will be echoed by many MPs from across the House on Monday. Those people do a fantastic job, but they need help—lives depend on it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Allergy Awareness Week.

Sitting suspended.

High Street Bank Closures and Banking Hubs

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of high street bank closures and banking hubs.

I thank you for being in the Chair, Mr Davies, and Members from both sides of the House for joining us in this debate. The numbers may be low, but I think that is because it is a Thursday, and we have just had the coronation. I know that this is an important matter, as it has been raised across the House for some time.

Banks are an important part of the fabric of our high streets and communities, providing access to cash, a vast range of banking services and, importantly, advice. At a time when we are all concerned about cyber-security, scams and fraud, this is particularly relevant. I appreciate that, like many businesses and commercial entities, banks are understandably facing changes in customer transaction patterns, requirements and behaviour. Some of these started before the covid-19 pandemic, but much has changed since that time, when the pandemic necessitated us all to live our lives very differently, not least in terms of technology.

Despite that, banks still provide an essential service—one that I believe neither a call centre nor a phone app will ever be able to fully replicate for all customers. When I heard in March this year that NatWest in Aldridge was due to close at the end of July, I was quite alarmed and disappointed. That will leave not only Aldridge but the entire constituency with just one bank—the HSBC. Surely that cannot be right. The issue does not just affect the Aldridge-Brownhills constituency or the west midlands; we are seeing a worrying pattern and up and down the country. The stats for 2023 alone show that 114 HSBC branches, 95 Barclays branches, 52 NatWest branches and 23 Lloyds branches have closed or are scheduled to close. That is 352 closures altogether. I know there are other bank branches closing on top of that, including TSB and more.

This topic is of interest to colleagues on both sides of the House, as I have said. That is clear from the number of parliamentary questions about it that have been submitted to the Treasury, which I am sure the Minister is aware of. On the day I raised this matter in the Chamber with the Leader of the House and requested a debate, I was not alone. I maintain that MPs should be champions of their communities, which is why I am standing here today bringing this matter to the attention of Ministers. Why am I doing it? Because every time a bank closes, our constituents—often the most vulnerable in our communities, who need a little bit of extra help —lose a service.

Our high streets, the very streets we seek to regenerate, risk seeing a reduction in footfall. Our businesses, charities and local organisations find it all so much harder to do business and transactions. I want to share a couple of examples. A local charity explained to me at the weekend how they always had an informal arrangement with their local bank so that when they did major fundraising collections in the village, they could go early to that branch and the staff would take the collection buckets and count out the change for them—hopefully there were some notes in there too, not just loose change. That is a service we cannot always expect a small local post office to offer.

A local business, Taylors Auto on Northgate, set the scene very well when on the closure of Lloyds last year they said that they have been running the business for 12 years, trading there for years and been customers for all that time. Without the bank in Aldridge they would have to go to Lichfield or Walsall. So many businesses in my constituency are family-run small and medium-sized enterprises. They are part of the community as well as the business network. My local residents are also affected. The number of elderly people in my constituency is above the national average: 26.7% of people are over 65 in the Aldridge Central ward, compared with the UK average of 18%. Although IT is familiar to many, it is by no means accessible to all. That can be because of a lack of tech skills, or a lack of access to a smartphone, a laptop, a computer or even the internet.

I will make two further points. First, if IT must be the only option, access to IT must be affordable and available. As many know, the cost of an internet connection has increased because of inflationary pressure. Secondly, personal independence must be maintained. Not everyone wants, or is able, to ask their children or their partner to help them every time they want to pay a bill. This is about dignity. Unless Members generate greater awareness of these issues, I fear that we will simply see these invaluable services continue to disappear quietly from our streets. When they are gone, they are gone.

Experts warn that in-person banking will not exist in a matter of years. While researching this topic, I discovered that 5,391 branches were lost between January 2015 and January 2023—an average of 54 branches a month. Do the maths: at that rate, there will no longer be in-person banking anywhere by 2027.

The recent announcement of the closure of NatWest’s Aldridge branch, which came so soon after the closure of Barclays and Lloyds branches, will be our fourth loss in just three years. That highlights the speed of loss. In-person banking offers clarity on payments and trustworthy advice, as well as convenience and accessibility to people’s own money. Surely that is a freedom that we should all have.

Alongside the end of in-person banking on the high street, we are also witnessing the decline of ATMs, especially those that are free to use. Before the pandemic, the magazine Which? produced a worrying report setting out that one in 10 free cashpoints across the country closed or switched to a fee-paying machine during a 17-month period. The rate in poorer communities was higher than in the least deprived areas of the country. Some 979 free-to-use machines in the poorest communities were lost. That will inevitably force those most reliant on cash, who can least afford to pay for withdrawals, facing charges or being forced to travel to access their money for free; surely, that cannot be right. By its very nature, cash is transactional. We must ensure that people and businesses of all sizes that depend on their ability to freely deposit and withdraw cash at a time of their convenience can continue to do so.

Businesses such as Pat Collins Funfairs, which is a long-standing family business from my constituency, have raised this issue of access to cash with me. It is by no means the exception. In 2021, a Treasury consultation proposed ensuring “reasonable access” for withdrawal and deposit facilities for personal customers, and deposit facilities for small and medium-sized enterprise customers. I ask my good friend, the Minister—I know that he has not been in post long—whether that commitment remains. If so, how is it that we are allowing such a decline in access to cash and banking to happen?

It is time to incentivise and attract people back to the high street, so that we can continue to support local businesses and communities and ensure that our town centres survive and thrive throughout the 21st century. We hear that shared banking hubs and post offices must play a greater role. I agree, but we must put this into some sort of perspective and be proactive. Banking hubs offer a counter service where customers of all major banks and building societies can carry out regular transactions throughout the working week. The hubs also provide dedicated rooms where customers can see community bankers from their own banks to discuss more complicated banking issues. That seems like a sensible and straight- forward approach.

However, according to Link, even with the closures in my constituency, which I have already addressed, Aldridge-Brownhills requires no additional services and certainly has not been recommended for a hub. In fact, the vast majority of Link’s investigations when banks are due to close conclude with “no additional services recommended”. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us why we have to wait until a community has lost everything before we take action? Surely that is too late and we need to get ahead of the game. I think that NatWest is still part of the Royal Bank of Scotland, in which I think the Government may still have a stake. If they do, I gently urge the Government to take another look at the issue of hubs for communities.

I turn to the role of post offices. We have some good post offices across Aldridge-Brownhills. Banking framework 3, announced in February, is to be welcomed. It will allow the customers of 30 branches across the country to carry on making cash payments and withdrawals in a post office, and it will allow small businesses to deposit cash until 2026. But the question is, what happens then? Again, the framework relies on access to post offices. In Aldridge, the post office sits outwith the main shopping centre. It is not on the high street or in the precinct; it requires the crossing of a two-lane carriageway, and there is no dedicated car park. That is not a good enough alternative to the bank. Citizens Advice reports that we are losing two post offices a week on average—we lost one in Walsall Wood, in my constituency, just this year.

It is important that we support both post offices and banking hubs as part of the solution when discussing the future of in-person banking on the high street and access to banking services and cash. In his response to a written question earlier this year, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury stated:

“the government believes that everyone, wherever they live, should have appropriate access to banking services.”

I agree. Can we ensure that that happens? It is also important to recognise that what might be an appropriate situation or solution in one place is not necessarily the right solution everywhere. There needs to be a much more tailored and localised approach. Perhaps that is something that the Government can work on with local councils, but they must not just pass the burden on to local councils—they must give them the resource to do it.

I appreciate that decisions on opening and closing branches and the provision of in-person services are a commercial matter for banks and building societies—absolutely, I do. But I press the Minister to take a more holistic, future-proofing approach that acknowledges the bigger role that our banks have always played at the heart of our communities. It is time to work in particular with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which holds the policy pen on high streets and regeneration, and to look at the social and not just the economic impact of bank closures. Driving footfall into our town centres and local high streets is the key to the ongoing rejuvenation of commercial and retail areas and to the regeneration and success of thriving communities. As I said, we must also consider working with local authorities on where we can provide hub services.

I met with NatWest this morning, and I will continue to work with it. NatWest is reaching out to customers across Aldridge-Brownhills. I impress upon the bank the importance of the needs of my constituents, businesses, organisations and charities. We had an incredibly productive meeting, but the bank is still closing. I welcome the fact that NatWest is holding a community outreach event next week for local residents. The announcement of the closure of Aldridge NatWest within a matter of months highlights exactly why we need to look at the bigger picture now, before it is too late.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this important debate. Between 2012 and 2022, Yorkshire and the Humber saw a 43% decrease in the number of bank and building society branches. Earlier this month, the Barclays branch in Hoyland announced its closure, which is of great concern to many local people. It follows a string of other branch closures in Barnsley, such as Yorkshire Bank in Wombwell, and will leave my constituency of Barnsley East with no bank branches at all, four having closed in recent years.

Physical branch closures are often justified by the rise in online banking, which has undoubtedly been a great convenience for many. However, closures risk financially excluding communities, and it is regrettable that people are no longer able to choose whether to bank online or in person. More than 3 million people aged 55 and above have still never been online, with those aged 75 and over most likely to be excluded. Furthermore, Age UK found that four in 10 over-65s with bank accounts—amounting to more than 4 million people—do not manage their money online.

While there has been a shift towards online banking, connectivity should not be assumed across the country. Rural areas are less likely to have reliable digital infrastructure, which therefore impacts their ability to access online banking. Although Labour is calling for mandatory, well-advertised broadband social tariffs for those who need them, they have not yet come about. As the cost of living continues to rise, many people find using cash easier for budgeting purposes, but it is not just access to physical money that people are seeking. It has been found that more people report wanting to speak to a real person as they become increasingly worried about their stretched finances.

There is some provision in place to establish shared banking hubs, which will offer people access to cash services. These hubs have the potential to help many suffering with bank closures, but there are still some issues to be resolved with this system. A routine trip to the bank often turns into footfall for local businesses, helping them to keep their doors open and our struggling high streets to stay alive. I hope that banks will take local needs into consideration—particularly those in rural areas where public transport is not as frequent or reliable—before continuing with further closures, and recognise the impact that removing branches can have on different groups in the community.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing today’s debate and on an excellent opening speech, which set the scene as to why community banking is still so important. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock).

The matter we are discussing is indeed very important. A lot has been said about rurality and access in more rural areas, but even in suburban towns such as Carshalton and Wallington, just outside London, this is proving to be a difficult issue. The main high street in Carshalton no longer has any banking facilities left whatsoever. There is a post office, but all the high street banks have left; I think Barclays was the last to leave, and that was quite a few years ago. The high street in Wallington lost Halifax a few years ago, and it has just been announced that Barclays is closing its branch on the high street as well. Of course, people can vote with their feet and switch to another bank that has a high street presence; Wallington does still have a NatWest, a Nationwide, a TSB, an HSBC and a Santander. However, the worry is that the Barclays branch will not be the last closure, and that many if not all of them will eventually close. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, at this rate of change, the next few years could see the end of high street banks altogether. We have seen it in other parts of the London Borough of Sutton, too: Cheam village, for example, has no high street banks left, having lost four over the course of the past decade.

In my short contribution today, the question I want to touch on is what is left behind when banks decide to close? Of course, the nature of banking is changing, and I respect that tough business decisions need to be made around the future model. However, as the hon. Member for Barnsley East mentioned, it is a huge issue that many people, for a number of reasons, are excluded from digital participation in online banking, and the same is true of those who rely on cash transactions, be they small businesses, charities or individuals. It is important that there is a left-behind service for them.

I thank Barclays for being very constructive in engaging with me since its decision to close. It has agreed to set up a Barclays van for customers, which will be in the car park of Dobbies Garden Centre—no relation to the house elf—twice a week every fortnight, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, I believe. It has also agreed to retain a single member of its staff so that it has a presence in another location on Wallington high street five days a week. That is very welcome news. I welcome the fact that Barclays realises that it needs to leave something behind, but that is sadly not always the case when other banks decide to close. They simply point to ATMs or the post office in the area, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills pointed out, access to cash and ATMs—particularly free ATMs—is also in decline.

There is a big problem with an over-reliance on the Post Office, which is not without its own problems. The post office in Wallington often has massive queues stretching up the road, particularly on a Saturday, and its opening hours are a lot more restricted than those of a bank. Over-relying on the Post Office to provide a banking service to people once a branch decides to close is wrong; we need to take a more holistic view.

I absolutely support the idea of banking hubs. It is a great idea to have representatives from all major high street banks in one place. It is a way for the banks to save money on rent for buildings that are not being used as well as they could be, so it is a good deal for banks and customers. However, I worry that they are often considered only when everything is lost. They can take a long time to set up from scratch, so potentially absolutely nothing will be in place for years. Will the Minister outline whether the Treasury will consider using its convening power and its influence to persuade banks to work more collaboratively and holistically to look at community need and plan in advance for these things to happen? We should not wait for every high street bank to close and then try to set up something from scratch. That is probably the best way forward.

We all understand and appreciate that the nature of banking is changing, but for so many—not least those who are digitally excluded—having that in-person service is not only desirable but vital. I hope the Minister will outline what work the Treasury is doing and will continue to do to ensure banking remains fair and accessible for everyone.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. The right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) set out the case very well for why bank closures are a problem and why they cause such concern in our constituencies. It feels like I have stood here innumerable times deploring the loss of another local bank in one of the towns in East Renfrewshire. I really related to the comments of the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock): bank closures are highly frustrating and cause such difficulties and challenges for people in our communities.

Sometimes, the way the banks deal with closures adds to the frustration. Some have reduced the number of hours they are open to provide a service, and they tell us in all seriousness that the reason they are closing is that fewer people are attending the bank. Well, of course fewer people are attending the bank if there are fewer hours available for them to do so. The reduction in the availability of service is a challenge and a self-perpetuating issue.

The hon. Lady’s comments about rural areas were absolutely right. This is an issue for people in rural areas—some of my constituents feel that very strongly—but we also heard about issues in more suburban areas. The suburban communities of East Renfrewshire are scunnered; they are fed up to the back teeth of banks disappearing from their high streets and leaving behind big gaps in the local shopping areas. That is particularly an issue for groups in our communities such as disabled people and the elderly, and for local businesses. Our local high streets face not only the challenge of bringing in customers but the additional challenge of the closure. A bank is a destination in and of itself, but people who go to banks may then visit local businesses—that will not happen if the banks are not there. Bank closures leave a gaping hole behind, which is unattractive, and the service that local businesses may also wish to avail themselves of is no longer available, so this is not just a one-dimensional issue for our high streets. I do not think that the banks are paying due care and attention to that.

Local residents are also aggravated by the correspondence they receive from banks that are going to close. Without asking in advance what they think about it, the closure is presented as a fait accompli—whether the community likes it or not, and regardless of its views, the local bank is closing, and people are unable to scrutinise the facts and figures. The bank also tells them not to worry because they can go to another bank that is 5 miles away. Well, it might be 5 miles away for a crow, but that is entirely irrelevant for a human being who has to catch two buses, with a half-hour wait between the two, to get from A to B, or if people do not have time to make the journey because they have other commitments. Such messaging from banks is profoundly unhelpful and insults the intelligence of their customers. The banks seem to be assuming that everybody is standing outside the closing bank, ready to make the journey, but some of the people affected may live in a town that has already lost its bank, which means that they will have to travel even further. It is understandable that people feel vexed.

The right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills pointed out that when a bank is gone, it is gone—it is not coming back—and that is one of the reasons why people are so concerned. There are many other reasons why in-person banking is valuable, including the opportunity it gives people to have a conversation about their money. We all value such conversations, which can advise us on how to stop fraud attempts, particularly those targeted at elderly and vulnerable people. Obviously, if there is no bank branch, such discussions cannot take place.

The ability to access cash is a huge issue in my community and others. If there are fewer free-to-use ATMs and fewer banks, we are taking away the opportunity for people to choose how they transact things in their day-to-day lives. Again, that is a bigger problem for those who have the least cash and for those who are most marginalised in our communities.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) is right to worry that banks might just be disappearing from our high streets altogether. Technology is great—I absolutely accept that a lot of the banking technology is really helpful—but it is not always what is necessary. We need to appreciate that both approaches are necessary. Technology and the ability to access it are valuable, but face-to-face services also need to be made available, whether for reasons of accessibility or because the relevant technology is not available. Such services also help us put criminal elements in perspective. The fewer the number of bank branches, the more opportunities for online and digital frauds. I have spent a lot of time recently looking at push payment frauds, and it seems to me that there would be fewer of them if people had access to someone they could speak to about their banking on a day-to-day basis.

Are banks doing what we need them to do? I am not sure that they are doing so. There is a very unfortunate assumption that communities will just cope with banks disappearing from their high streets. When I moved to the home I have now lived in for about 15 years, there were numerous bank branches on my local high street, but that is not the case any more. People in towns all over East Renfrewshire will feel the same way. The banks have just disappeared—they have walked off the pitch. The promises we heard about never closing the last bank in town are laughable. My constituents would think that that was ludicrous, which is a shame, because they and our town centres need bank services.

Our post offices do a brilliant job. I have stood here before and waxed lyrical about the brilliant post offices in East Renfrewshire. They are fantastic. I know it is a strange thing to suggest, but people should come to our local post offices. They are great, but they have their own job to do. They have a long and varied list of things they can do, but they are not banks, so although they are doing a great job, there are still gaps. The banking hub in Cambuslang is certainly a model to look at, and I am encouraged by others following that. But whatever the model, people on our local high streets and communities, particularly those who are most marginalised, must be able to access cash and banking services. I do not think that it is an unreasonable expectation that we should have that in our local communities, and I very much look forward to hearing what others have to say today.

This conversation will become all the more pressing in the next couple of years, as banks continue to close apace and people begin to really wonder what the banks are for, who they are providing a service to, and how we ensure that we have access to cash and banking facilities, which is what people need.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I think that I am about to reiterate a lot of what has already been said, but I think it is worth saying again. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this really important debate. Before I start, I should declare an interest: I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. I do not think that I technically have to declare that, but I do know a fair bit about post offices as a result.

Scotland has been hit harder by bank closures than anywhere else in the UK. Scotland is geographically bigger than any region of England or any other nation in the UK, and consequently it has a very spread-out population. Because of that spread, bank closures can be more damaging to us, which is why it is shocking that last year’s Scottish Affairs Committee report found that Scotland has also lost a greater share of bank branches than any other country in the UK. That is diminishing the ability of people to access cash and other banking services. Since 2015, 53% of Scotland’s bank branches have closed, which is the highest percentage loss of all the nations in the UK. In 2009, 56% of transactions were in cash, but today’s cash payments represent only 17% of transactions. Despite that drop, cash remains the second most frequently used form of payment, second only to debit cards.

We talk a lot about services and access to cash. Does the hon. Lady agree that for people who are on a fixed budget and for whom managing money is difficult, having cash makes that very tricky job just that little bit easier? They can see what they have in their purse, wallet or pocket in front of them. That is why I think—and I hope she agrees—that that is another reason why the banking service and access to cash and advice, particularly at a time of cost of living challenges, are even more important.

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Member. If someone is poor, they cannot afford to run up bank charges. They cannot afford to be overdrawn. I am old enough to remember my mother having pots of money—some was used for this, and some was used for that, but if it was not there, we could not spend it. It is a better way to keep oneself in the black altogether.

Before 2021, about six branches a month were closing in Scotland, but since 2021 that has increased to about eight a month. Post offices are also now closing: between 2011 and 2021, we lost 112 post offices to closure in Scotland alone.

My hon. Friend is making a really important point about both banks and post offices potentially being lost to communities. Does she agree that when banks close and abdicate their responsibility, their suggestion that post offices will simply take over their services is unfortunate and unacceptable? It is as if the banks think they are not at all accountable. That is not how we should address this.

Absolutely. Banks are allowed to say, “Well, it is okay if we close, because there is a post office nearby.” That will not always be the case, as more and more sub-postmasters struggle. I will come on to that later.

The head of policy at Age Concern Scotland has noted:

“These closures often hit older customers hardest, leaving them cut off from vital services and making it harder for them to manage their money...As we battle through this cost of living crisis it is more important than ever that older people can access their money as cash, for free, and use it whenever they need to.”

The number of cash machines that are closing is disgraceful. For example, in my local area in Lanarkshire we have lost nearly 100 cash machines in four years. In July 2018, Lanarkshire had 650 cash machines but that had fallen to 561 by last February. And the really important point is that the number of free-to-use ATMs in my area had dropped by 555 to 426. That means that the only ATMs that people can access are ones that charge them for taking out their own money; they are paying a poverty premium. That is ludicrous and it is really affecting people on a daily basis.

As I have said, for years banks have said, “It’s okay if we close our local banks, because there will always be post offices nearby.” However, as I have also already said, post office closures have picked away at their number, too. What will the Department do to protect network and community services that are run through post offices, especially in relation to people who cannot get to banks?

Given the different ways of running post offices, it is really difficult to tell how many sub-postmasters who have taken on banking to a great degree are now struggling. I do not know whether folk here are aware of this, but 70% of the members of the National Federation of SubPostmasters are only earning the national minimum wage, despite the good work that they do in providing post office services and now banking services. That figure came out before the cost of living crisis, so the situation will be even worse now.

It is also very difficult for Post Office Ltd to encourage people to take on post offices or sub-post offices because of the Horizon scandal. The other thing is that the Post Office lozenge—the sign that we are all very familiar with—goes outside a building and says, “Post Office”, but inside that particular building there might only be a drop and collect service for parcels. So, people think that there is a post office where there is not one.

On banking transactions, many Members have already said that many local businesses now use local sub-post offices to pay in takings in cash. That is important, because it keeps money in the local area and it really keeps some high streets going. However, last year new regulations to combat money laundering were introduced by the Financial Conduct Authority—actually, I have found it difficult to find out if it was entirely the fault of the FCA or UK Finance. Recently, it has been very difficult for local businesses. There are no banks, so they take their money to the post office, but a limit was imposed on how much each business could deposit.

I am very pleased to say that last month the FCA noticed that a more tailored approach should be taken by banks for cash deposits by business customers, on the basis of expected business customer activity. However, that also links back to the problem that sub-postmasters have, because they were losing money as customers could not deposit all of their takings and many customers then had to travel many miles to be able to deposit their money safely. I am hopeful that, when this issue is properly sorted out, a tailored approach will allow local business owners to go back in and carry out their business the way they did before.

Real clarity is needed on banking hubs. I have visited the banking hub in Cambuslang, and one is to be opened quite near my constituency in Carluke, hopefully reasonably soon. The building in Cambuslang was fantastic. The way it works is that each bank that has signed up sends a representative to the banking hub once a week to give business advice. As many Members have pointed out, people go to banks not just to take out money; they need advice, help with filling in forms, and other things like that. Those things were being done in the hub. I spoke to many customers that day, and they were very happy with the service given. It was a pilot programme, and it is still unclear what effect it had on the local post office branch, so we have to bear that in mind. The NFSP is concerned about the fact that there is no third-party oversight of the banking hub recruitment process. It is not known how those who gained the right to run the banking hubs were selected. I have already written to LINK about that, and I am awaiting a response.

Consumers are able to access cash at a post office only if their bank has signed up to the banking framework agreement. Which? has raised concerns about the long-term viability of the agreement, as it is voluntary and there is a time limit on it—I think the last one to which banks signed up was for three years. Barclays bank originally did not sign up, which was quite a loss for its local customers. I am calling for access to cash at a post office to be placed on a firmer and more sustainable footing in areas where local cash needs are unmet. Can the Minister comment on that, and update us on where we are going?

Returning to the post office argument, if banking hubs have an impact on local post offices, then that is something that we have to be very careful about. Part of the difficulty is that the Treasury and the Department for Business and Trade are both involved, and there is not a great deal of communication between them. I know it is getting sightly better, but this Government have for many years almost had a silo mentality, in which one Department did not really know what the other was doing. That is to the detriment of people who have to use banks and post offices—if they are still there. I would really welcome the Minister’s comments on that.

I again thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills and all the other Members who have spoken. This is a real ongoing problem, and like my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), I have stood here to speak on the subject innumerable times. I have come at this problem from different angles, and have tried to say something different each time, but hat is proving harder and harder. It is time that the Government got a real handle on the issue, and started to protect consumers more, as well as those who cannot use digital banking. That is not just older people, though many older people struggle with either bad broadband or the inability to handle new technology. We need a joined-up approach from the Government to ensure that people can still access banks, post offices and cash.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this debate, and for eloquently laying out the case for why bank branches are still important in many of our constituencies, whether rural or suburban. Too often the political discussion on bank branch closures focuses only on concerns around cash. While the issue of cash is important, and I will touch on it later, there is also the issue of the many other essential services that bank branches provide. They have been outlined in this debate.

Age UK and others have rightly highlighted the importance of the local bank branch to communities across the country. It provides vital in-person services that older people rely on, whether they are opening accounts, applying for a loan, making or receiving payments or need help with a standing order. It would, however, be wrong to assume that it is just older people who use bank branches. There will always be a significant part of the British population that needs the extra face-to-face support that hon. Members have mentioned.

Natalie Ceeney has been working on the issue for a long time. She is the chair of UK Finance’s access to cash action group, and she has made it clear that there is a substantial overlap between the people who rely on access to cash—around 10 million adults across the UK—and those who depend on their local bank branch for financial advice and support. In her report of her research and engagement with local communities, which I encourage hon. Members to read, she found that it was often the most vulnerable—ethnic minorities, people whose first language was not English, and the poorest in society—who relied on cash and in-person help with their finances in their day-to-day life. That point was echoed by the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), who talked about what happened in her constituency, and noted that many people from hard-to-reach communities needed those services. That is why some of the figures that we heard in today’s debate are so concerning.

Analysis published by Which? found that over half of the UK’s bank and building society branches have closed since January 2015. That is a shocking rate of around 54 closures each month, and there have already been 158 closures in 2023, with another 274 branches expected to close by the end of this year. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) said that that is taking place in her constituency, and explained how it has cut off countless people in her area from the goods and services that they require. Unfortunately, last year, when the Government introduced provisions on access to cash in the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which I led on, they did not introduce protection for essential face-to-face banking services, which was a glaring omission. I wonder whether the Minister will comment on that. It risks leaving millions of people behind—not just those without the digital skills needed to bank online, but people in rural areas with poor internet connections, and the growing number of people who cannot afford data or wi-fi because of the cost of living crisis. That is another point made powerfully by my hon. Friend.

The Opposition recognise that it is inevitable that payment and banking systems will continue to innovate, which is a good thing. Online banking is a far more convenient way for people to manage their finances, but we have to ensure that the digital revolution does not further deepen financial exclusion in our country. That is why the Labour party wants to give the FCA the powers that it needs to protect essential in-person banking services. To be clear, I am not calling for banks to be prevented from closing branches if they are genuinely no longer needed—quite the opposite. I recognise that access to face-to-face services could and should increasingly be provided through banking hubs, whether those are delivered by the Post Office, as we have heard, or take the form of shared bank branches or other models of community provision. If a branch is genuinely not being used, it makes sense that it should not exist, but if it is well used, I do not see why we would close it.

I anticipate that the Minister will say that the Government support banking hubs. We have heard that time and again, but let us be honest: the roll-out of banking hubs has been pathetic. Communities have lost 5,605 bank branches since January 2015, while only four hubs have been delivered so far. That is just not good enough. Figures from LINK reveal that only a further 52 are in the pipeline. The figures do not add up or make us feel very positive. People in our constituencies are telling us that it is not enough, and a lot more has to be done. On top of that, many of those planned banking hubs will not even provide essential in-person services. They must provide a more comprehensive service when they are built. That is why we must empower the FCA to review the community’s need for access to essential in-person banking services, and get a clearer picture of what is needed in our constituencies.

That, of course, will not be enough on its own to tackle financial exclusion. Alongside that, we will need to put in place a proper strategy for digital inclusion. Banking hubs will have to play a role in that. The Post Office has called for banking hubs to have financial inclusion advisers, who can ensure that no one is left behind. That is a very interesting idea, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it. Labour believes that banking hubs have the potential to tackle digital exclusion—for instance, through dedicated staff, who could teach people how to bank online and provide internet access to those who need it. I would like to hear what the Minister has to say about those proposals, although I recognise that this is not his brief; perhaps he could comment on behalf of his colleagues.

We of course welcome the fact that the Financial Services and Markets Bill finally introduced some protection for access to cash, but it sadly falls short of what is truly needed. It does not make any commitment to protect free access to cash. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) talked a bit about free access to cash and the community need in his constituency, which I know well. I was born in St Helier Hospital, like him—many years earlier, I have to say. I think his point was important. It shows that it is not just rural areas that are affected; suburban constituencies in London still have that community need. We need free access to cash.

Data collected by Which? shows that there has been a rapid drop in provision of free-to-use ATMs in recent years. There must be something in legislation that protects free access to cash; otherwise, our constituents will be in trouble. We saw a decline of 30,000 free-to-use ATMs between August 2018 and February 2023. That is a stark 26.1% fall. It is a shocking statistic. It is forcing the poorest people in the UK to pay for access to their own money. That seems ludicrous. We know that a massive 3.8 million people are in financial difficulty, and 15 million people in total use cash for budgeting purposes. The right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills made the point that more and more people are using cash to budget because of the cost of living crisis.

The need to protect cash services will only grow in importance as the cost of living crisis increases. The data collected by the Post Office that I looked at showed that the use of cash has actually risen in recent months. The cost of living crisis is deepening. The poorest in society are increasingly turning to cash to manage their budgets day to day, and week to week, and we should help them by providing free access to cash.

I hope the Minister will take on board the concerns that have been raised today. If his Government are serious about leaving no one behind, there are three fundamental questions he must address in his closing remarks, or take back to the Minister who has this brief. Does he agree that the rate of bank branch closures is reaching an all-time high? This is the time to empower the FCA to protect in-person services. If not now, then when will that happen? Secondly, does he recognise that the Government must work with industry to accelerate the roll-out of banking hubs if the initiative is to have any impact at all, and that banking hubs must provide all the services that people need, not just a select few? Finally, how will he ensure that everyone—particularly the poorest in society, who rely on doing so—can access their own money, without it burning a hole in their pockets?

It is a particular pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies, because I know that if you were not in the Chair, you would be making an impassioned speech. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for bringing forward this debate. There is strong feeling on this subject across communities and constituencies, including mine. She spoke with great passion and knowledge on behalf of her constituents, whom she serves very well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) quite rightly said that banking is changing. In recent years, innovation has led to an increase in online banking, which many people find quicker and more convenient than banking in branch. We know this from our experience, as well as seeing it in the data. In 2021, the industry body, UK Finance, found that 86% of UK adults made contactless payments; 72% banked online; and 57% banked using their mobile phone. That is not just young people. The latest data shows that more than 70% of people aged over 65 use online banking.

As the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) pointed out, given the rise of online banking, we have to ensure that digital connectivity and mobile phone coverage are strong. In 2020, the Government announced a £1 billion deal with mobile operators to deliver the shared rural network, which will see operators collectively increase mobile phone coverage across our country. As for speed, in 2021 the Government launched Project Gigabit, which commits £5 billion to expanding gigabit coverage to 85% of households in the country.

The basic fact is that local bank branches receive fewer and fewer visitors because, frankly, many customers’ needs can be met digitally through video calls, banking apps or on the phone. In that environment, banks and building societies have a decision to make about how to provide in-person services to those who need them in the communities in which they operate. Those decisions are nuanced, local and, most importantly, commercial. The Government rightly cannot and do not intervene in them.

That being said, we recognise the real concerns expressed more widely about losing access to bank branches, which, as has been said, are important to many communities. For a variety of reasons, some members of our communities, such as those who are vulnerable, may need to do their banking in person. All firms should follow the FCA’s guidance to ensure that they carefully consider the impact of planned closures on their customers. That guidance sets the expectation that if a branch closes, firms will put in place reasonable alternatives in order to meet customer needs. Where firms fall short of that expectation, the FCA has the power to ask for closures to be paused, or for other options to be put in place.

I am interested to know the number of occasions on which an intervention has been made after a closure. I hope the Minister agrees that this is important. Banks should not close a branch and then review the engagement and so on, because then it is too late. Too much is happening on the back foot.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. I will have the Economic Secretary to the Treasury write to her with any figures that we have on the pauses that have taken place as a result of FCA guidance. LINK carries out reviews in order to suggest and recommend the services that can be put in place. If there are no bank branches left in a community, a banking hub can be suggested. However, if my right hon. Friend will allow me, I will ask my colleague to write to her with more detail on that point.

The industry is innovating and finding new ways to respond to customers who want and need to access in-person services. I am pleased that we have heard a lot of discussion today about post offices, because they play a vital part in this issue. It is right to point out the statistics, which I was quite shocked to learn when preparing for this debate. Some 99% of personal banking customers, and 95% of business banking customers, can do their everyday banking—can do such things as withdraw cash or check their balance—at one of 11,500 post office branches across the country. I was also shocked to learn that 93% of people in this country live within just 1 mile of a post office, so almost everyone can access their everyday banking services locally.

Does the Minister appreciate that that will be cold comfort to people who no longer have a post office, or who have an on-and-off post office, which is not a very reliable way of doing business, or who do not live in the heavily populated areas that presumably make up that 99%? That is probably an unhelpful comment, in their opinion.

I accept the challenge, of course. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) also asked me to comment on what support the Government are providing to post offices. I can respond to both points.

In the 2021 spending review, some £227 million was secured in Government investment between ’22 and ’25, including a subsidy of £50 million to protect access to post office services in commercially challenging locations. That later increased to £335 million, including a £150 million subsidy to those in commercially challenging locations. I therefore accept what the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) says, but the reality for the 93% who live within 1 mile of a post office cannot be ignored. For those who are not within that catchment area, the Government have stepped in with subsidy and significant funding to ensure access to a post office.

We are lucky in this place, with two post offices that hardly ever have queues, but in my constituency there are massive queues outside the post offices, in which people have to wait a long time. Also, some of the services that constituents want to use a bank for are just not appropriate in a post office. Some post offices, certainly in my constituency, are based in WHSmith or another shop; it would not be appropriate to go in there to talk about personal banking services. Will the Minister comment on that?

What services banks provide is a commercial decision for them, but they provide a lot of different ways to interact with them these days, including several online options. As I pointed out right at the start, the majority of the British public access banking in those ways, whether online through a website, web chat or a mobile banking app, or via the telephone. Customers of commercial banks have a variety of ways to interact and get advice, and I would encourage them to do so. It is not the Government’s place to intervene in the commercial decisions of banks on what services they provide and where.

In addition to what I have just laid out on the variety of online services, many banks and building societies have programmes in place involving community centres, libraries, mobile banking vans or semi-permanent banking pods. The pods are structures that provide a dedicated private space to support customers with banking services. They can be moved around to different locations, depending on demand—the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) may wish to engage the banks on those for her area. For people who need to speak to their bank face to face, such places can make a vital difference.

Alongside those programmes, there is the high-profile innovation of shared banking hubs, which many Members have referred to in the debate. The hubs provide a dedicated space where customers can meet community bankers, who support them with more complex services. The hubs also offer a range of everyday banking facilities, allowing customers to deposit cheques, check their balance, and withdraw and deposit cash. More than 50 shared banking hubs have been announced for communities across the country, as has been said. Four have opened their doors already and two more are expected in the coming weeks.

Does the Minister agree that 52 hubs are due to open, which is great, but only four have opened? What more can he or his Department do to encourage, or gently push or prod, the organisers of the hubs to get them in place? The point made by Members across the Chamber today comes down to banks closing and hubs not opening.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The Government recognise and share the frustrations that she has voiced about the pace of the roll-out of the hubs. Those are commercial arrangements and the industry is working to deliver the hubs quickly. We expect the delivery to accelerate over the coming months, but I share the frustration. The Government have laid out very clearly, as I have today, our expectation: we want the delivery to speed up. We welcome these initiatives, which clearly demonstrate how innovation is supporting access to banking in the longer term. We believe that the impact of branch closures should be mitigated where possible, so that all customers, wherever they live, continue to have access to appropriate banking services.

We are also taking strong steps to protect access to cash, as has been asked of me today. It is true that electronic payments are being used more and more, and cash less and less. Over the last decade, the use of cash to pay for goods and services has declined by almost three quarters. However, cash continues to be important for millions of people across the UK, including businesses and people who may be in vulnerable groups. There is, as ever, a balance to be struck. As more and more people and businesses embrace the benefits of new payment methods, the Government should not stand in the way, particularly when those innovations can make it easier to start and grow a business or to manage family finances, but we must offer reassurance and protection for those who do need cash.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills asked me to make a commitment on this, and I will say that the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which is going through Parliament right now, does just that. It will enshrine access to cash in legislation. In doing that, we are helping to ensure that everyone, whoever they are and wherever they live, is able to manage their finances in a way that works for them. I hope that that commitment has been heard today by not just my right hon. Friend but many of her constituents, who I know will be concerned about that.

Like many of the speakers in today’s debate, the Government understand the challenges that these changes have brought, and the nervousness that can accompany any change, but supporting customers, communities, businesses and people across the country remains our key duty. Of course, we will always welcome innovation, especially in financial services, to support competition and grow our economy. We will continue to work with the sector, the public and all Members across the House to ensure that we have a modern, flexible banking system that caters to the needs of every person and business in our country.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to all colleagues, from across the House, who have made contributions today. None of us here is anti-innovation at all, but what we are seeking from the Minister is continued reassurance that the Government are on the side of customers, be they residents, constituents, businesses, charities, organisations or the most vulnerable in our society. I think we will continue to watch this issue; I certainly will. It would be really helpful to have greater clarity on hubs. I appreciate that that is a commercial matter, but I will continue to look to the Government to see what they can do to ensure that the people whom we all seek to represent have access not just to banking, but to banking services, information, advice and, most importantly, cash. I am grateful to the Minister for his time and contribution this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of high street bank closures and banking hubs.

Sitting adjourned.