Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications of the decline in the use of cash for the “poverty premium” payable by the most financially disadvantaged.
My Lords, modern technology has delivered many important benefits to us individually and to society as a whole. But some among us have not been able to take advantage of these trends, in some cases because of unfamiliarity with the particular technology and in other cases, more importantly, because the individual’s personal financial position is too stressed to allow them to do so. I focus my remarks on this last group.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register. I am chairman of CMS Ltd—Cash Management Solutions. The company provides analytical services to banks and retailers on the best methodologies for cash handling. The work of the company has no direct relevance to our debate tonight, but it has given me an insight into the interaction of cash and credit in our society. I say “no direct relevance” except in one sense. It is often argued, as my noble friend may argue shortly, that non-cash transactions—credit cards, direct debits et cetera—are cheaper than cash payments. I am afraid that this assertion is wrong. Non-cash transactions can be safer, more secure and leave a better evidence trail, but they are not cheaper. There is general agreement that non-cash transactions cost about 0.25%—one-quarter of a per cent—to fulfil. By comparison, cash costs are about 0.15%, just over half.
The practical implications of a paper-based payment system were brought home dramatically to me when I was a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of your Lordships’ House. We examined Instrument 2017/427 entitled the Universal Credit (Tenant Incentive Scheme) Amendment Regulations. Under this statutory instrument, the East Lothian Housing Association wanted to reward its tenants by reducing their rent by £10 if they paid by direct debit or standing order and a further £20 per month where the tenant had no rent arrears.
The purpose of the regulation was to ensure that the reduction in rent payable did not affect the benefits payable under universal credit. They were clearly a trial run which, if proved successful, was likely to be rolled out across the whole UK. So far, so good, but I wondered why there were two rewards and not one. Enquiries with the relevant department revealed that there was, in fact, only one reward. If the tenant did not or could not sign a direct debit or a standing order, they were not eligible for the second £20 reduction, even if they were up to date with the rental payments due.
Inevitably, families on low incomes have to budget very carefully. Signing direct debits cuts across such budgeting because, as will be familiar to the House, a direct debit mandate allows the deduction of the sum due on the date agreed without any reference to the account holder. Many people on low incomes, aware of the ebbs and flows of personal expenditure, not to mention the inevitable emergencies, will be reluctant to sign up to the open-ended commitment of a direct debit. Apart from anything else, if a direct debit is refused and has to be re-presented, there will be a further charge to the account holder by the bank of between £10 and £20. One of the dangers of these regulations was that the most financially stretched in our society were apparently never going to be able to take advantage of the additional room for financial manoeuvre that the proposals would offer. It is not a small amount: £30 a month is £360 over a full year.
That is only the beginning. Noble Lords may care to examine their utility bills carefully. They will see substantial savings for those who can, or are prepared to, sign direct debits. I do not like direct debits and I do not sign them. I have here my recent utility bills. One says: “You will save £33.36 a year on your electricity standing charge if you pay by direct debit”. Another says: “You will get a continuous discount as a lower daily standing charge when you pay by direct debit. Over a year you will receive a discount of £40 on our electricity charges and £50 on your gas charges”. Looking across the whole piece, there are substantial numbers of other things such as council tax, telephone and utility bills generally. It is quite possible to argue that the poorest members of our society are paying £500 to £600 more than those who can sign a direct debit for precisely the same service.
In fairness to the Government, they are aware of some of these charges. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy published a Green Paper in April this year—Command Paper 9595—which has a section headed:
“Ensuring vulnerable consumers are treated fairly”,
which, over a series of paragraphs, explains the problem. It will be very important that, in the follow up to the Green Paper, the Government move from statements of good intent which recognise the problem to implementing policies which actually provide some answers to the issue. These solutions must also apply across all government departments. While this Green Paper is being discussed, other departments are implementing policies, such as those affecting the East Lothian Housing Association, which will accentuate the disadvantage faced by the poorest in our society.
For example, my noble friend’s department, the Treasury, also has a consultation out on cash and digital payments in the new economy. Perhaps inevitably, there is a good deal of focus on the way the use of cash facilitates money laundering and tax evasion. However, the paper also points out that, across the UK, no fewer than 2.7 million people are entirely reliant on cash. Even more significantly, half that number— 1.35 million people—have household incomes of less than £15,000 per annum. Any inability to sign direct debits or standing orders is likely to make a significant reduction in the disposable incomes of these groups.
To conclude, it would be facile to deny the conflicting pressures that exist. No one wants to encourage tax evasion or impose unnecessary administrative and paperwork burdens. However, there is a need for a joined-up, cross-departmental government approach if we are to create, in the words of the Prime Minister,
“a country that works for everyone”.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on securing this debate. I had the privilege of serving as a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on Financial Exclusion, which was very ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, in 2016. I commend its report to your Lordships. We looked at a range of issues that were causing financial exclusion. One issue to which we drew attention was the closure of so many bank branches—which has accelerated in the 18 months or so since the committee reported. Even last week we heard of substantial further closures. We understand the trends in how finance works. We would all love to see a situation where people could get bank accounts. A lot more people have them than used to, but there are still about 1.5 million who do not and are still struggling. The irony is that they get into a trap where the less you have the more things cost. That cannot be right. We took evidence from a range of bodies and went to see organisations in Coventry and the east of London which were helping people. We had piles of written evidence.
More than one government department is involved in this and we need to join things up. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, about direct debits going out on a specific day. Many people who are on zero-hours contracts have periods when they are paid erratically. For them, it is extremely difficult to tell in advance whether they will have a particular amount in their account when they do not know how many hours they are going to be working that week or month. The banks have a basic bank account which we know does not make them money. We discovered that very little effort was made to promote it and I can understand why.
There is a need for joined-up thinking. We also discovered that the primary source of taking people to court for non-payment of rent or anything else was the public sector. It was the public sector that was leading the charge in this. I have a big disagreement with the Government in how they handle housing benefit here; we do it differently at home. I believe that rent should be paid to the landlord, not to the tenant. I understand that it is very nice to be able to say that we teach people to manage their own accounts. That is all very well, but anyone who has served a constituency over the years, and run advice centres, knows the sorts of people who are vulnerable. Think of the pressures on a young mum who is on her own with two or three youngsters. Back home, on the day when the money was due to be paid the sky would darken with all the vultures ready to pounce. There were crooked lenders and all sorts. There was an army of bailiffs running around trying to chase people down for rent. That is a disincentive to bring housing stock into the rental market.
Rent should be paid directly to the landlord. At least that would guarantee a roof over the family’s head, which would be some progress. That system works far better than leaving it open for someone to pounce on a vulnerable person, who is often a woman on her own with children. They may have addiction problems or all sorts of other issues. Under our system, at least the roof over their head is paid for and there is therefore no need for bailiffs to go chasing round trying to track people down. There are so many temptations because of the demand to get hold of that cash, and in an admittedly small number of cases, exorbitant lenders go round chasing after people, particularly those with addiction issues. The people who suffer most in those circumstances are the children in the family. In some cases, they are in a bad enough condition as it is.
I ask the Minister to take account of this issue, which was raised by some members of the committee when it was sitting. There are bank closures and the only way to have a card is to have an account. But if your account is charging exorbitant rates of interest then if you draw down cash on the card you pay even more than if you are making a purchase. It is a vicious cycle and I hope that the Government can join up and break it, once and for all.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hodgson on bringing this debate to the House. He has a great track record for identifying those who are vulnerable or those in need in an otherwise prosperous society, which speaks for itself.
There should be no doubt over the Government’s commitment to fighting poverty. We all recognise that progress has been achieved. Since 2010, there are 1 million fewer people in poverty, including 300,000 fewer children. The record high employment rate is a key part of that positive story. The House will be aware that there are now 600,000 fewer children living in workless households. No one here needs me to remind them about the cycle of deprivation where no one in the house has work, no one has an example of work and there is little hope. So having 600,000 more children living in a household where someone is in work is hugely important.
Nevertheless, I have a great deal of sympathy with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, because in the 1970s, in the last century, I worked for many years as a social scientist for Frank Field at the Child Poverty Action Group. He employed me to undertake a longitudinal study of the incomes, spending patterns and lives of families below or at the poverty line. For inclusion, a household had to have at least three children and to live at or below national assistance. At one primary school, St Matthias in Bethnal Green, a third of the children qualified. My task was to get them to write expenditure diaries. It became extraordinarily obvious, in the way that some of us have also seen in our constituencies, that if you have a low, unpredictable, unreliable income, it is incredibly difficult to live within your means. If your income is totally predictable and your expenditure is predictable, then maybe it is easier but you cannot buy massive bargain containers of food, you are living from hand to mouth, buying products from the corner shop, borrowing money where you can.
More than that, there is no scope for an emergency, a disaster, a high day or a low day. If your child gets picked up and taken to prison somewhere far from home, no one is going to pay your expenditure. A further quality, which I was so aware of, is the pressures of being poor and feeling you have to do the right thing by your children. It may be cheaper to wear national health spectacles—it may be that I, working at the Child Poverty Action Group, had my children wearing national health spectacles—but the families I worked with said to me, “You wouldn’t expect my children to wear poverty on their face, would you?”
The poverty premium is all too clear. The less money you have and the less reliable the source of income, the more difficult—and, frequently, the more costly—it is to budget economically. The concept of the poverty premium was first used in 1963 by American sociologist David Caplovitz. More recently, the Social Market Foundation defined it as,
“the extra cost that households on low incomes incur when purchasing the same essential goods and services as households on higher incomes”.
The core components include access to cash, access to credit, choice of fuel tariff, paper billing for fuel and telecommunications, area-based premiums and insurance costs. There has been a great deal of debate about Wonga, but Wonga was used by very many people who had no other means or option to raise the money they did. The University of Bristol a couple of years ago found that the most punishing aspect was failing to switch to the best fuel tariff, accounting for almost half of the total premium. The cost to the average low-income household was an extra £233 every year.
The poverty premium includes factors imposed on low-income people often as a result of the areas in which they can afford to live. Examples include accessing affordable shops and retailers, and the use of expensive fuel prepayment meters, particularly common among social housing tenants. Others are discretionary factors: low-income individuals make choices which are more costly, frequently as a consequence of less knowledge or education. I often think of rail transport: all these students can manage to get from the north to the south of the United Kingdom for what looks like a minute amount of money, but the low-paid, the less educated and the more pressed people with less time, who cannot spend hours on the internet, pay very large fees indeed.
We are witnessing powerful trends in the UK. In 2017, there were more transactions made by debit cards than cash for the first time. This trend is expected to continue as more customers and retailers become more comfortable with contactless payments. I am not decrying the advantages, relating to money laundering, theft, and all sorts of other advantages. Of course, young people hardly know what cash is: they are huge users of contactless payments. However, as the noble Lord mentioned, a very substantial number—2.7 million people—still rely on cash. People from low-income households, and many others, rely on cash. Indeed, only today I talked to a noble friend who said that he could cope only with cash and he could not cope with the internet, digital media and so on.
It is easy to expect that everyone is going in this new exciting direction without realising that, inadvertently, it has the potential of creating more gaps, more divisions and more difficulty. The higher cost of accessing money is a component of the poverty premium but only accounts for a small share. This cost is largely incurred by utilising pay-to-use ATMs. Historically, that has been an issue with deprived areas lacking free-to-use cash machines. I am pleased that LINK is beginning to look at these difficulties and differences.
I urge the Minister to listen to the comments raised in the debate. We are excited by the financial exclusion working party. It met once in March and is about to meet again. Of course we welcome progress and the opportunities of the new digital world, but we must not forget those who are disadvantaged or left behind and potentially become more vulnerable as a result of these strides forward.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for the opportunity to talk about the poverty premium. It is a very important debate. I do not know if the noble Lord picked up the good news that Lloyds is not going to charge people for unplanned overdrafts or the announcement over the weekend that Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have got together behind Fair by Design to support the wage stream so that, if you are working and have earned some money, you could draw it down at a flat rate on a number of occasions throughout the week. Therefore, in a sense, pay day never really arrives; it is when you need it.
Maybe there is a problem that, when you are the poorest of the poor, you find it very difficult to get the deals and the good food necessary to keep you and your children healthy. Instead, you end up with loads of stuff full of salt and sugar, badly put together, that in the end will affect your health and ability to function. Therefore, we know that these are really interesting developments.
My own Bill, the Creditworthiness Assessment Bill, which has passed on to the other place—I do not know if I am allowed to mention it—is a simple attempt at stopping people who need credit paying through the nose. It is all part of the poverty premium.
I come from the poverty premium. My mother, for instance, was a lovely Irish lady who if you gave her a pound, it burned a hole in her pocket and she would have to go out and spend it. She knew where all the bad deals were. She knew how to waste her money. She knew how to cry when we were dragged before the court. So I come from this kind of background and what I find very difficult is that, when people talk about the poor, I am sorry to say that they seem to talk about another species: “The poor will always be with us”. We are not in the Victorian period, where we were telling the poor off; we have gone the other way. We have embraced them. We love them. We actually really like them because they do good stuff for us. They make us feel good. They make us feel that, if we can do something for the poor, then there has been a good reason for us to pass through life. I do not really like that, nor do I like the old method. I would like to find a way that, instead of ducking and diving and bobbing and weaving, lets us recognise that if you are poor all the doors are closed.
So how do you break open the doors and bring about a change in somebody’s life? I was very fortunate, because I could use the prison system. Every time I got nicked, I learned something—somebody was there to teach me. Unfortunately, we do not have that opportunity now. If you go into prison, you go in bad and come out worse, because rehabilitation has gone down the tubes. We do not have those social workers, or the NHS sending out wonderful paramedics to go into the community to help mother nurse her child. We do not have all that kind of pastoral care that we used to have when I was in my early years and in my teens. We have got rid of all that, and instead we have a poor who we embrace, and who in a sense we would like to find a way of indulging. But every time we do that, we do not move them away from poverty and, instead, we tie them up.
Interestingly, in Brazil, President Lula brought in something called the family allowance. It was a simple thing: you gave the mother $104 a month, but she had to do two things—it came with strings attached. One was that mummy had to go to the hospital and to the doctor regularly, because if she died and the children were left on their own, they would go feral, and then the police would get involved and there would be murders, and all sorts of things like that. The other condition was that the children had to go to school.
If we really want to do something about poor people, we have to break their poverty. We—as a Government, as a party, and as a Parliament—have to find ways of breaking through those doors, and we will not be able to do that in a liberal, loving sort of way. We are going to have to impose some order and structure on people’s lives who do not have order and structure. We have to find a way of breaking through those doors so that we can move them out of this miasma, out of this place where we are quite happy to keep coming up with wonderful new ducking and diving, bobbing and weaving—things that change nothing.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, on securing this debate and on his eloquent and forceful opening speech.
The poverty premium—the poor paying more—is a very serious problem, and it is highly likely to be made worse as the use of cash continues to decline. But there are other factors that will make the poverty premium worse. There is the widening gap between household income and household expenditure—on average £900 last year, and likely to get worse. Figures due to be released this week will show wage increases to be once again lower than inflation, intensifying the squeeze on just-about-managing families. This comes at a time when there is a huge lack of financial resilience.
The FCA’s excellent report on the financial lives of UK adults, published in October last year, makes for worrying reading. The survey shows that around 15 million people have no or low financial resilience. The survey also shows that 4 million of these people are already in financial difficulty: they have not paid domestic bills or met credit commitments in three or more of the last six months. In addition, 4 million of these financially vulnerable people have never used the internet. All these figures are worrying. They remind us of the existence of real poverty, of the huge numbers in or on the edge of real financial difficulty, and, importantly for this evening’s debate, they remind us about the lack of digital access in a society that is becoming increasingly digital. I will return to that theme in a moment.
The 2016 University of Bristol study, already referred to by the noble Baroness, set out its views about what constituted the poverty premium. It saw it as the poor paying more for energy, telecoms, insurance, food and grocery shopping, access to money and use of credit, and it estimated the poverty premium at £490 per household per year, but with a huge variation within that average—for some households, as much as nearly £800 a year. These are all lower than the £1,300 per annum estimate made by Save the Children in 2010, but Bristol cites methodological differences for the different outcomes, which raises the question of the need for reliable data if we are to advance this kind of discussion.
The Social Market Foundation, in its paper of March this year, acknowledges the need for better measurement and puts forward its own proposals for a reliable set of metrics. I commend this approach. If we are to measure the effect of the decline in the use of cash or, indeed, of any factor on the poverty premium, it is vital that we have an agreed set of metrics. Do the Government agree with that? If they do, what can they do to help establish proper tools for assessment?
The Government are in fact, slightly indirectly, already engaged in this area. The big society may have all but disappeared with its inventor, but its legacy lives on in Big Society Capital. The fund is developing what it describes as,
“a targeted holistic programme designed to eliminate the poverty premium by 2027”.
HMG are the majority shareholder in Big Society Capital. Can the Minister say what part they are playing in this project, and how advanced the project is? Is it, for example, considering tonight’s question on the impact of the decline in the use of cash? On this issue, I note that the Treasury has just concluded a consultation on cash and digital payments in the new economy. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when we are likely to see the report.
In the call for evidence to that inquiry, the Government recognise the use of cash as an entirely legitimate choice. It is certainly that, but it is also often an entirely rational choice or a matter of necessity for people in poverty. There is, furthermore, no justification for those with least money paying more by using cash than by using other means to buy the same services. This has special force when what people are buying with cash are vital and basic necessities. There is no real justification for the premium. It should not exist, and it certainly should not be allowed to get worse as cash usage declines. The premium is either exploitative—it frequently is—or the consequence of poor market practices: neither situation is desirable or fair.
The Government will need to take action as cash usage declines. In particular, the Government will have to take urgent steps to remove or ameliorate the digital disadvantages of the poor. It is the lack of digital access and/or digital savvy that is most likely to preserve, or worsen, the premium as cash usage declines.
Critically, free access to cash must be maintained, especially for those living in financially deprived areas. This is a current concern. The recent disputes over the transfer fees in the ATM system between banks and the operators involved raise the prospect of the removal of ATMs and the introduction of more pay-to-use machines. This problem is likely to become more acute as cash usage declines. What is at risk is both free access to cash and the creation of areas in which there is effectively no access, free or paid.
I am aware that the LINK organisation has promised to maintain free access ATMs where needed and to replace any machines withdrawn by operators from disadvantaged areas. I worry, however, about what this promise is worth if LINK’s shareholders can override it at will, as they can. This will present a key test for the Government. Removal of free-to-use ATMs from financially deprived areas will lead to a decline in the use of cash and will certainly worsen the poverty premium. It would be good to hear the Minister say that he will not allow that to happen.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, both on securing this debate and on introducing it so precisely. As he identified, those dependent on cash are living in an increasingly disadvantageous world, and the use of cash has reduced very significantly over the last decade. The rate of decline, as new technologies are employed, will mean that quite a small proportion of the population will be dependent on cash. Those people are, however, dependent on a disadvantageous system, as was so clearly identified in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, supported immediately by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who pointed out just why the poor can be at such an obvious disadvantage. One obvious aspect is that direct debit has its rewards—we all know the incentives to choose it—but you need a regular income and certainty of payment before you can take advantage of it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, emphasised the fact that we live in a society where unemployment figures are relatively low. The trouble, however, is that an awful lot of our fellow citizens are in employment but not under the old criteria—they are on zero-hours contracts, and a person with an uncertain income, on basic wages, can only be in a position of extreme disadvantage when making payments. The advantages of direct debit, of not having to pay excessively for credit and being able to access money easily are not available to those who are on uncertain incomes and poor.
That is why we need considerable action by the Government, as has been called for in this debate. It is comforting that the Government are at least aware of the problem and addressing certain aspects of the decreasingly cash-using society. Action will be necessary, and the Government are not shaping up to the requirements. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, emphasised with his usual accuracy and passion the extent to which people living on very low incomes are a burden on society to which society pays only lip service. If not, in an economy in which we are supposedly making so much progress, food banks would not be proliferating all over the country. Furthermore, some people with clear earning patterns are dependent on food banks, because their pay is below the necessary level of income.
That is why I think we have to do what the noble Lord, Lord Bird, identified. We have to take responsibility for getting people out of poverty. We have to address ourselves to crucial issues such as the question of the minimum wage, which needs to be at a level that guarantees that households can avoid poverty. We need to tackle the question of zero hours, and change our employment laws so that this particular malign development, which has occurred over the last decade in such profusion, is brought under control. We also need to tackle how benefits are paid. Universal credit seems to be engineered to guarantee that people are plunged into poverty in certain circumstances. It cannot be right that we have a benefit that renders people vulnerable at crucial times through the way in which it is paid.
This has been a stimulating debate, which has addressed the issue of the poor. We all ought to feel the greatest concern about that: we cannot constantly talk about an economy that is making progress when child poverty, and poverty generally in our society, is as pronounced as it is today.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, who started this debate by setting out very clearly the paradox with which we are faced. On the one hand, he said that there are 2.7 million people who are entirely dependent on cash, and then he used a series of excellent examples, drawn from his own experience, that show the great benefit to be achieved by those who can make payment in other forms—in his examples, direct debit mandates.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, drew on his experience from the excellent work of the Financial Exclusion Committee in your Lordships’ House, and talked about the need to secure access to banking services. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, drew on her experience from her time with the Child Poverty Action Group, and made the hopeful point about the significant reduction there has been in the number of workless households in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, gave positive examples from Lloyds Bank about the cost of credit, but talked about the impact of that on health and the need for people to have order and structure in their lives. I thought of his memorable maiden speech in this House, when he said, if I am correct, that the reason he was able to do so much to help the poor in this country, which he undoubtedly has, was because he did not have a sentimental bone in his body about poverty. That is not a contradiction. Indeed, it is important that we look correctly at those people we are seeking to help. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, talked about another level of exclusion, particularly digital exclusion, and the 4 million people who have never used the internet. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about how uncertainty of income flow can exacerbate the disadvantage that people feel.
I will set out briefly what the Government are doing in these important areas and then come to some of the questions that have been raised. When it comes to tackling poverty in general, a key element was acknowledged by the noble Lord, Lord Davies. I assure the House that the Government are focused on lifting people out of poverty. Indeed, the proportion of people in absolute poverty both before and after taking into account housing costs is now at a record low. Additionally, real disposable household income per person is above its pre-crisis peak and is 3.4% higher than at the start of 2010. We know that over 3 million more people are in work, that there have been improvements in the national living wage, and of course we have seen a rise in the tax thresholds.
That said, I appreciate the concerns which have been expressed around the isolation felt by people who are unfamiliar with the digital payment services that are becoming ever more prevalent. We know that 8.4% of adults have never used the internet—instead of a percentage we were given an absolute number by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey—while many more people are missing out on the opportunities that the digital world offers, from online banking to easier access to direct debit payments. We want to make sure that everyone can access all the benefits of digital banking. To that end, the Government are actively committed to tackling the root causes of digital and financial exclusion. The digital strategy, which was published last year, committed the Government to enabling people in every part of society and irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status to access the opportunities of the internet. That point was brought out by my noble friend Lady Bottomley when she used the illustration of students searching the internet for travel fares. Many apps can provide those services, but if you are digitally excluded, clearly you are not going to be able to take advantage of those deals.
The Government have now established the Digital Skills Partnership, which will bring together stakeholders from the private, public and charitable sectors in a joint effort to help people increase their digital skill levels. This will build on the free digital skills training opportunities that our corporate partners have pledged as part of the digital strategy. Some 4 million training opportunities were pledged, with 2 million having already been delivered.
Similarly, reducing financial exclusion is a key government priority. After the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and his committee had done their work we created the Financial Inclusion Policy Forum, which was referred to by my noble friend Lady Bottomley. It met for the first time in March and is due to meet again soon. This is driving better co-ordination across the sector. Government Ministers, regulators, industry and consumer groups are working together through the forum to ensure that people, regardless of their background or income, have access to useful and affordable financial products and services. For example, the forum recognised that a key challenge is tackling the issue of a lack of access to affordable credit. A sub-group of forum members has been established to look at how that work can be taken forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Bird, referred to his Creditworthiness Assessment Bill. I often pay tribute to him because in the course of the Bill, without the legislation actually making it on to the statute book, he managed to get £2 million out of the Treasury for the rent recognition challenge, which has been launched as a way of coming up with innovative solutions to precisely the challenges that his Bill identifies.
The Government recognise that people are increasingly moving away from cash and towards digital payments, as my noble friend Lord Hodgson set out. While the Government support these developments, we also recognise the continuing importance of cash, especially to the more vulnerable members of society. For those people who depend on cash today and in the future, we will need to ensure that that access is continued. An individual reliant on cash will be penalised if they can access cash only at an ATM which charges for cash withdrawal. That is why the point made about the LINK system is so important and I shall come back to it when I respond to the questions. The UK has today one of the most extensive free-to-use ATM networks in the world. Around 80% of the ATM network is free to use and 97% of all ATM transactions are conducted through free-to-use ATMs. The Government continue to work with industry and the regulators to ensure that widespread free access to cash is maintained.
I turn now to some of the important questions raised in the debate. My noble friend Lady Bottomley asked specifically about the LINK programme and its availability. In January 2018, LINK announced that it would enhance its financial inclusion programme to include all ATMs that are a kilometre or further from the next free-to-use ATM. The Government have been and will continue to engage with regulators and industry, including LINK, to ensure that widespread free access to cash is maintained. The noble Lord, Lord Bird, talked about people paying for high-cost credit. The Government welcome the FCA’s update and its proposal to cap the cost of the rent-to-own programmes that have been introduced. It is important that these measures are effective and the Government will continue to work with the FCA to ensure that all customers are treated fairly.
The noble Lord, Lord Empey, talked about the closure of bank branches. While of course that is a commercial decision, I know that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen, recently visited several small and remote communities in Scotland to experience at first hand what they were going through as the result of a lack of access to banking services. That is why the Government support the industry’s access to banking standard, which sets out the steps that banks must follow when they decide to close a branch, including giving at least 12 weeks’ notice and providing information on how customers can make alternative arrangements. Moreover, we have the post office banking framework agreement set up with 28 high-street banks. This enables 99% of personal banking and 95% of small business customers to carry out their everyday banking at one of the Post Office’s 11,500-plus branches.
The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, talked about improving the incomes of the poorest. The statistics he used on real household incomes are those on which we should focus, and are the reason that we supported the national living wage. The lowest-paid, those in the fifth percentile, saw their wages grow by almost 7% above inflation between April 2015 and April 2017. Over 1 million people, the lowest earners, have been taken out of income tax altogether since 2015.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, asked about access to credit and gave the example of Wonga. The Government are committed to facilitating sustainable financial services to give consumers greater choice in accessing credit. This includes support for the credit union sector, which provides an accessible alternative to high-cost credit. In the Autumn Budget, the Government announced their intention to help the sector expand by increasing the number of potential members of credit unions from 2 million to 3 million. The call for evidence has been issued and is now closed. The helpful note on this I received from colleagues simply says that a formal response will be made “in due course”, which I know is not going to add a great deal to the sum of human knowledge, but it recognises that we have taken this subject seriously, we are calling on the evidence and are reviewing it as we speak.
The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, also asked about maintaining access to LINK ATMs. I have given that answer in response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, on the same point.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about the use of food banks. We recognise this and are constantly reviewing research carried out by organisations including the Trussell Trust to add to our understanding of food-bank use, and will consider requirements to add further to the evidence base. Food banks are not unique to the United Kingdom, but are an international phenomenon and an important element of our society. They are a civil-society response to people in need and we ought to recognise that, but also redouble our efforts to ensure that people do not have to access their services as far as possible.
The Government recognise the profound impact that the rapid rise in digital payments is having on our country, with which the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, began our debate. As technology plays an ever-greater role in our lives, we recognise that the Government must support innovation and make the most of new technology, while ensuring that no one is left behind. That is the importance of cash. As I hope I have made clear to noble Lords today, the Government are working with industry and regulators to ensure that all members of our society benefit from the potential of digitalisation and that cash continues to be accessible to all who rely on it, and in that sense this continues to be a country that works for everyone.