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Harriett Baldwin responds to debate on bank branch closures

15th July 2015

Harriett Baldwin outlines measures to ensure access to banking services in communities affected by high street bank closures.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Harriett Baldwin): What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Davies! I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) on securing the debate. He has spoken eloquently on behalf of his constituents and communities. He is without a doubt the most diligent and effective Member for Cleethorpes I have ever known.

As my hon. Friend set out, bank branches play an important role in their communities—communities such as Barton-upon-Humber, Caistor and Market Rasen. They are valued by individual consumers and small businesses, and the services that they provide make a real difference to people’s lives. One of my key priorities as Economic Secretary is financial services that deliver for customers. I strongly believe that banks should be there to help and enable customers to achieve their aspirations at every stage of their lives, whether that is saving for their first home, taking out a mortgage, buying a car or saving and investing for the future.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, how we bank is going through a period of unprecedented change. New online and mobile technology means that customers are reducing their use of high street branches. As he mentioned, some banks had pledged not to close a branch if it was the last one in town, but since those pledges were made the volume of transactions in high street branches—including in the last branches in town in places such as Caistor—has continued to decline. Those changes mean that the banking industry, which has to modernise and improve its services to maintain profitability, often has to make tough decisions. They are commercial decisions for the individual institutions, but it is right for the Government to seek to ensure access to banking services for everyone, wherever they live.

We made strong progress on that agenda during the last Parliament. In March this year, the Government welcomed an industry-wide agreement known as the access to banking protocol. I am pleased to say that all the major high street banks agreed to that protocol, which came into effect in May this year. The protocol means that when a bank decides to close a branch, it must think carefully about the consequences of doing so; it must engage with its customers; it must consider the needs of its customers; and it must identify ways for its customers to continue banking after the branch has closed. The results of that engagement with the community and an impact assessment will be made public before the branch is closed. We have also made it easier for my hon. Friend’s constituents in north Lincolnshire to switch their bank accounts, with seven-day switching to one of the banks that remain open.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern about the impact that branch closures will have on shops in local high streets. I assure everyone that the Government are committed to safeguarding high streets and town centres. For example, through the high streets innovation fund we have provided funding to the 100 towns that have the highest rates of empty property. Small business rate relief is also a valuable bonus for high street shops. In March 2015, the vacant share of retail outlets fell to 13%, which is the lowest vacancy rate since 2010.

As well as taking seriously the impact of branch closures on local communities, we must consider how customers will continue to access banking services. A range of alternative measures is in place, and I would like to talk in more detail about some of those measures. As my hon. Friend mentioned, at more than 11,500 of its branches in the UK, the Post Office allows customers to access their bank accounts, check their balances, withdraw money and deposit cash and cheques. Sixteen banks offer services to their personal customers and small businesses through the Post Office, including those that he mentioned. That is a huge network, which offers most customers a real opportunity to continue banking locally.

I know that more can be done, however. The range of services offered by the Post Office may be more limited than those offered in a traditional bank branch, and my hon. Friend has mentioned how popular they are. Service provision may vary by bank and by the capacity of each post office. That is why the Government are supporting measures to improve the banking services that the Post Office offers and to make those services more consistent for customers.

Late last year, the British Bankers Association and the Post Office began negotiations to agree a standard set of services, such as withdrawals, deposits and balance checking. The agreed services will be made available to bank customers at post office counters across the country. The negotiations are ongoing, but I make it clear that the Government consider completion of that work to be a priority. The protocol includes a measure for an independent review after one year, which I hope will indicate whether it has been effective—I will take a close interest in that matter.

We also expect to see concrete progress on publicising the services that are already available. As I have made clear, banks should be there to help their customers achieve their aspirations at every stage of life. We should also recognise that the modernisation of banking services is leading to new opportunities for customers, and we should all be excited about that. Since April 2014, for example, customers have been able to transfer money instantly to another bank account using only their mobile phone number; from 31 July 2016, customers will be able to use their smartphone to photograph cheques for payment into their bank account, helping to make life easier for customers in remote areas. Banks are taking action to ensure that customers are able to use such new and exciting technologies with confidence.

Those innovations also apply to the UK’s ATM network, which can play a more important role in addressing some of the concerns voiced by consumers when their local branch closes. Steady progress is being made in extending the ATM network across the UK, and the number of free-to-use ATMs is at an all-time high. In fact, 97% of withdrawals are now made free of charge. Isolated, disadvantaged and rural communities often have the worst access to free-to-use ATMs, however, so the Government are working closely with the Link network’s financial inclusion programme to subsidise free-to-use cashpoints in more than 1,400 remote and deprived areas across the UK. Importantly, members of the public in my hon. Friend’s constituency can nominate their area for inclusion in that programme.

This debate has focused on branch closures, but it is also important to recognise that many banks are choosing to prioritise their branch network and are opening new high street bank branches, with TSB and Metro bank being good examples. Metro bank is planning to open 150 branches by 2020, and its branches are open seven days a week.

Martin Vickers: I thank the Minister for the information she has provided. My constituents, and people across the country, would appreciate more opportunities for face-to-face contact. Can she give an assurance that the Government will do all they can to influence the banks to make provision for people who want personal contact? It is one thing for people who are applying for a car loan of a few thousand pounds not to have face-to-face contact, but people who are committing to a mortgage for 25 or 30 years need detailed, experienced advice. It is much easier to provide such advice on a one-to-one basis.

Harriett Baldwin: I agree. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that 58% of people agree with both of us that face-to-face contact and having a local branch are important when choosing where to bank and engaging in major transactions. Some banking organisations take the view that they will gain market share by opening new branches. I have mentioned Metro bank, and TSB currently has 630 branches serving 4.5 million customers, which makes it the eighth-largest branch network with 6% of all UK branches. The Government are keen to encourage such healthy competition between different brands, some of which offer a face-to-face banking model.

The Government’s ambition is for 15 new banks to enter the market over the life of this Parliament. If we achieve that, it will give customers far more choice of whom to bank with and encourage banks to compete more effectively with one another. Competition will also continue to drive innovation in the delivery of banking services, such as contactless payment and payment by mobile phone. Atom bank, which recently received its banking licence, is a good example of innovation. It plans to be an online-only organisation and has ambitions to offer a range of innovative services to customers, which could include face-to-face contact through technology, as well as between individuals in the same location.

One often suggested solution is the sharing of bank branches, which would allow banks to lower overheads and maintain local provision when they may otherwise have to close their branches. Of course, each bank must specialise and differentiate itself from its competitors, but that should not prevent the industry from thinking creatively about how premises and services could be shared. The British Bankers Association is currently considering that issue in consultation with its members. In particular, it is exploring where local circumstances may mean that sharing a branch is the best solution.

I understand the concern of communities in northern Lincolnshire about local bank branch closures—my hon. Friend mentioned Barton-upon-Humber, Caistor and Market Rasen—and many communities across the UK, including the one I represent, are experiencing a similar situation. Changes in the banking industry reflect changes to customers’ needs and habits. Banks and building societies need to balance customer interests, market competition and other commercial factors when considering their strategy. It is right that the Government do not intervene in such commercial decisions, but we are clear that banks and building societies should support access to banking services for everyone.

Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising these important issues today.

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