The question of access to cash is closely linked to the question of the future of our banks. These are issues I have been involved with for a number of years and have recently written again about the effect that closing banks is likely to have on the constituency. I agree that during the course of the pandemic life has changed and some things will not return to what they were before. Some change is an acceleration of things that were likely to happen anyway and the pandemic has moved things at a great pace than anticipated. The closure of bank branches is one such change.
The reality is that the nature of banking has been changing over time with increased use of online banking. There is no doubt that for many people this is easy and convenient. Whilst as a society we need to adjust to this, there are still some people, particularly the vulnerable and elderly, who do not necessarily have access to online banking and who rely on being able to get to a local branch.
I raised this with Barclays when they gave notice that they were to close the remaining branches sited within the constituency. As of early March this year there are no branches of Barclays in the constituency. I am aware that some other banks seem to be moving in the same direction.
In order to try to ensure that there is access to banking facilities for those who need it the Government has been supporting the Post Office’s relationship with the banks. The Government requires the Post Office to meet six ‘Access Criteria’ to ensure that the majority of the UK population is able to utilise Post Office services. These criteria include the requirements that 99 per cent of the total UK population must be within three miles of their nearest post office. In rural areas 95 per cent of the population should be within three miles of their nearest post office outlet.
Independently the industry is working together is look at the issue and UK Finance has been established as the industry voice. Together with the largest retails banks and building societies the Action to Cash Action Group has been set up to ensure that cash access will be available for individuals and businesses to withdraw and access cash now and in the future. In my discussion with Barclays I raised the possibility of sharing facilities and was pleased to learn that the under the umbrella of the Cash Action Group the major banks are looking to identify new ways of sharing physical services where needed. I will watch with interest to see what comes forward. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has taken an interest in this and has responded to the initiative.
Decisions on the opening or closing of individual bank branches are taken by each bank on a commercial basis and thus it is not something that Government can intervene in. However there is an industry agreement which aims to help minimise the impact of bank branch closures on customers and communities. This is known as the Access to Banking Standard. It applies once the decision to close a branch has been taken. It is designed to ensure that customers affected by branch closures receive sufficient communication and clarity on the reasons for the closure, and adequate support in accessing alternative banking services. This industry-wide agreement is supported by the Government, the FCA, and the main high street banks.