My Lords, the Government recognise the importance of free access to cash and so have launched the Joint Authorities Cash Strategy Group, bringing regulators together to ensure comprehensive oversight of the overall cash infrastructure. The government-established Payment Systems Regulator has powers to regulate LINK, the scheme that runs the UK’s largest ATM network. The Payment Systems Regulator is holding LINK to account over its commitment to protect the broad geographic spread of free-to-use ATMs in the UK.
I am grateful to my noble friend for that quite full Answer. I have had extensive representations on this from Which?, Age Concern, the Association of Convenience Stores and about half a dozen other companies. Is not the nub of the problem twofold? First, convenience stores and places such as garages have to pay business rates on through-the-wall ATMs; secondly, free use of ATMs is being withdrawn because of adverse changes in the ATM interchange fee. In this situation, will my noble friend undertake to make representations to the Chancellor on this aspect of business rates and ask the regulator to sort out the situation on the interchange fees so that the number of free ATMs does not continue to decline but is put back on a full basis to meet the needs of all our rural people in particular?
My Lords, I understand the concerns my noble friend has expressed. At the moment there are 45,000 free-to-use ATMs, which represent 75% of ATMs. This is 13% higher than it was a decade ago, although I am aware there has been a fall during that period. I will draw his comments on business rates to the attention of my colleagues in the department.
My Lords, the decline in access to free cash machines, especially in poorer and rural areas, is a significant problem, but in one report I read, a consumer said, “There’s no point in having cash if you can’t use it in the shops.” Will the Government work with our financial institutions and the regulator to address the rising costs of handling and banking cash that lead local retailers to go cashless and work to keep a cash infrastructure for the millions of people who will be left behind without one?
My Lords, the noble Baroness brings up access to cash. As she will be aware, there was an independent review chaired by Natalie Ceeney, which was a valued contribution to the debate. Her Majesty’s Government are considering its recommendations. The review also highlighted that it is not just about ATMs, as the noble Baroness said, but about access to cash. Her Majesty’s Government support further industry collaboration to promote alternatives such as cashback and cash collection and delivery services.
My Lords, yesterday the CEO of LINK said in the Times:
“Most parts of the country are just not ready to go cashless and Link is committed to ensuring that every high street has free cash access via ATMs and post offices.”
Can the Minister say how many high streets still do not have free access to cash? LINK has also promised to pay to install free ATMs where they are needed. How many free machines has it paid for and installed to date?
My Lords, the noble Lord brings up the £5 million fund provided by LINK and its members to fund requests for new ATMs in local areas with poor access to cash. This is an incredibly popular scheme, and there have been a number of successful applications. I do not know the exact numbers that have been installed so far under this scheme, but I will write to him on that issue.
My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the research last autumn by Which? indicated that nearly a quarter of people in the poorest areas use only cash. Will he consider a minimum service guarantee for free cash machines to stem this growing injustice?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate mentions access to cash in rural and more deprived areas. At the moment, 73% of free-to-use ATMs are within 300 metres of the next one, and 94% are within one kilometre. The right reverend Prelate also talked about minimum standards. I do not have that information to hand at present but I will ensure that he receives it.
My Lords, should not the Chancellor also be looking at this issue? Is it not quite clear that small shops are having the greatest difficulty in sustaining their ATMs, yet the bigger shops can of course bear the cost? Should not the Chancellor look at business rates, which are causing such a problem for shops in this country? That problem merely exacerbates a quite unacceptable situation.
The noble Lord brings up business rates, as did my noble friend. As I said, I will draw this to the attention of the department. He also brings up the subject of whether we will legislate in any way to protect access to cash. The Government will consider carefully whether legislation is required. However, steps can be taken to safeguard access to cash, even without making changes to the law.
My Lords, Knaresborough in North Yorkshire used to have six banks. It is now to have no banks, and each time a bank moves, the cash machine is removed from that location. Can my noble friend speak to the banks and try to make sure that in future, when banks close in vital areas of that kind, some form of ATM or cash removal facility is nevertheless maintained by those organisations? We are relying on retailers such as the Co-op, with its garages, to provide facilities which ought still to be provided by the banks that are leaving.
My Lords, of course, bank branch closures are a commercial decision for banks. However, the Access to Banking Standard commits banks to inform customers of closures and options for continued access to banking services. The Lloyds Banking Group has announced that it will close 56 branches, but all are within half a mile of a post office, and 53 branches are also within 0.3 miles of a post office. That links in with the banking framework agreement with the Post Office, which allows 95% of business customers and 99% of personal banking customers to carry out everyday banking services at the 11,500 post offices across the country.