To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that banks provide free withdrawals from current accounts at cash machines.
My Lords, the government-established Payment Systems Regulator regulates LINK, the scheme that runs the UK’s largest ATM network. The regulator is using its powers to hold LINK to account over LINK’s public commitments to maintain the broad geographic spread of free ATMs across the UK. The UK has one of the most extensive free-to-use ATM networks in the world. Around 80% of the UK’s ATM estate is free to use and 97% of transactions occur on free-to-use ATMs.
I thank the Minister for his Answer and welcome the Government’s recent attention to this problem, but we have to bear in mind that the number of free-to-use ATMs that are closing is escalating. The report by Access to Cash Review, published a few months ago, warns that we are sleepwalking into a cashless society that will leave millions behind. Banks are encouraging a cashless economy because they can save on staff and property costs, but these savings are not passed on to customers. Instead, those who use apps and computers become unpaid workers of the bank, and those without access to technology are finding it harder to access bank services. Will the Minister support the proposal by Ged Killen, MP in the other place to ban charges for using ATMs and make banks responsible for giving their customers free access to their own money within reasonable distance from their homes?
I understand the noble Baroness’s concern for those who do not have access to free-to-use ATMs. I hope she will be reassured that the number of free-to-use ATMs in Scotland increased by 85% between 2008 and 2018, from 2,800 to 5,200. But the noble Baroness’s Question encapsulates a real challenge for Governments today: how do we respond to technological change which is cost-effective, popular, cheap and embraced by the vast majority but, for whatever reason, is not used by a minority? The use of cash fell by 16% last year. Only 28% of transactions were in cash—that figure is forecast to fall to 10%—and 5 million adults apparently did not use cash at all last year. The Government’s policy is quite clear: we want the Payment Systems Regulator to hold LINK’s feet to the fire—to its public commitment to maintain the broad spread of free-to-use ATMs. It has powers of direction and can levy fines to deliver that commitment. On her final question, if you ban charges you lose the pay-to-use ATMs, of course, and might prejudice the existence of the free-to-use ATMs by reducing the revenue stream for ATM owners.
Does my noble friend not agree that it is very important to remember that ATMs do not just dispense cash? They are increasingly available for a range of banking activities, and very usefully too. Does my noble friend agree that when branches of banks close, we should encourage as much as possible that those important facilities are retained somewhere in the community—whether a village or town—that is losing its bank branches? Is that not a good thing which we should be encouraging?
My noble friend is quite right; they are used not just for cash withdrawals but often for deposits or balance queries. I very much hope that banks respond to my noble friend’s suggestion that if they have to close the last branch in a town or village, they ensure that they leave behind a free-to-use ATM that will replace at least some of the facilities that it used to provide.
My Lords, at the end of March there were 924 deprived areas without access to free-to-use ATMs, and this was a 12-month high. On 1 April LINK promised to address the problem by increasing payments to operators. It also said that if that did not fix the problem in two months, it could directly commission free-to-use ATMs in these deprived areas. The two months are up. Have the increased payments worked? Has LINK commissioned any free-to-use machines in these 924 deprived areas?
The noble Lord is quite correct that LINK is directly commissioning ATMs in areas that do not have one but need one. If he has a particular area in mind that needs an ATM but does not have one, I am sure he will let LINK know. The company has tried to ensure the viability of free-to-use ATMs in deprived areas by increasing the transaction fee that the ATM owner gets to £2.75 per transaction, against the standard fee of 25.9p. LINK’s policy is that where it has to shrink the estate, it does so by removing ATMs that are close to another one—73% are within five minutes’ walk of another one—but maintaining free-to-use ATMs in remote or deprived areas.
My Lords, I am sure the Minister will appreciate that the banks owe wider society a great deal after 2008. How is it, therefore, that somewhere like Hebden Bridge—and I do not always quote Yorkshire with enormous favour—has no bank and only six ATMs at present? Those six are being reduced to two, and the two are so busy that they run out of cash. How is this system, which the Minister has just commended, working?
I will certainly draw LINK’s attention to the problems the noble Lord has just outlined in Hebden Bridge. I hope that Hebden Bridge also has some post offices. We have invested £2 billion in post offices since 2010 in order that they can provide access to cash and other banking facilities. However, I will contact LINK to see whether we can ensure that those cash machines in Hebden Bridge are fully charged, in view of the pressing demands of the residents of that town for cash.
My Lords, this is certainly a long-standing problem. The Minister may be interested to know that my maiden speech in this House many years ago was during a debate about the LINK network’s policy on charging for access to cash, and that it was one thing if you could withdraw £200 but something else if you could only afford to withdraw £50. Despite all the technological advances in how we access money, it seems to be a case of plus ça change. My concern was for bank customers who might lack transport or have mobility restrictions. Does the Minister understand that this can sometimes mean that they are unable to reach a fee-free cash machine? What reassurances can he give me, all these years later?
I commend the noble Baroness on her maiden speech and I am sorry that her ambitions have not been fully fulfilled. As I said a few moments ago, LINK is directly commissioning ATMs in areas that do not have an ATM but need one. In view of her question and that from the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, it is now incumbent on those who champion the cause of free ATMs to bring to LINK’s attention those areas that do not have an ATM but need one, or those that have only a chargeable ATM.