Cash Acceptance Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Cash Acceptance

Alistair Carmichael Excerpts
Monday 20th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his presentation of the topic.

I declare an interest: I am a member of the Consumer Council for Link, which runs the national network of free-to-use ATMs. It also assesses the impact of banking closures and looks at what should replace them, whether it is a banking hub such as the one in Cambuslang, which the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned, or one of the alternatives.

The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and I are often in this Chamber discussing this very topic. When we were first here, almost three years ago, I made the point then the issues are twofold: acceptance of cash and access to cash. There is no point accessing cash if it cannot be spent, as she said; but here is no point accepting it in the first place if no one has it to spend.

This debate is not really about acceptance of cash; that is a misnomer. It is about who pays for our cash system. Is it businesses? Retailers do not get to keep every penny if people pay by cash, and the extra costs associated with handling cash and with the cash system are passed on to consumers. The financial services sector —everyone boos it quite happily—passes the cost on to account holders. Fundamentally, the cost of our cash system always ends up back with the customer. Tinkering with the intermediaries handling the cash and introducing new rules, as some have advocated today, will not change that fact, even if it makes for some media-friendly, savvy headlines in the Daily Mail.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Nothing in life is free; eventually, somebody has to pay for it. This trend has been driven by Governments of all colours for decades. The most significant move towards a cashless society was the Labour Government’s decision to prevent people from being able to access pensions at the post office by handing over a pension book, and insisting that all pensions go into bank accounts. There will have to be a different culture in Government before they have the authority to lecture banks.

Paul Maynard Portrait Paul Maynard
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I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but I am not lecturing the banks on the basis of being a politician. I apologise if my approach today is technocratic, but I am not seeking to be political. The Minister can explain what the Government are actually doing on this front.

We have all had substantial lobbying on this issue. My inbox has been full of press clippings, videos of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and so on. I am a little troubled by the emphasis on the compulsory acceptance of cash, and particularly by the suggestion that we should adopt something like the Spanish legislation that limits card payments to a €30 minimum. If someone wants to spend less than €30, they cannot use a card. That seems to be the very opposite of payment choice, and the cost would be passed on to consumers through higher prices. The cost to retailers comes in the form of driving further to deposit the takings at the end of the day. If they have to drive a long distance, they might have to close earlier to get to the post office or bank before it closes. That means they forgo income, so they might have to raise their prices.

In my constituency, the signs in shops saying “No card payments under £3” or, “No card payments under £5” have disappeared since the pandemic. That is progress; it gives people more choice. New technology, such as handheld card readers, has made payments both easier and cheaper, although I recognise that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) might intervene to say that broadband is still not good enough in many rural areas to make such things reliable, particularly in the tourism sector.

Before people out there start to shout at me, let me say that I certainly do not believe that cash should be killed off and that the future is entirely digital—far from it. People will always need cash, particularly the financially vulnerable and marginalised in society. My constituency of Blackpool North and Cleveleys has eight of the 10 poorest neighbourhoods in the country, and I know that some people rely on cash to manage their income. Some are nervous about using technology; they may struggle to remember their PIN or manage their personal finances. They may be among the 1.8 million people who are still unbanked, relying on a jam-jar approach and monitoring pots of money for bills, which cannot be done with a card.

I was troubled by some of the proposals briefed out ahead of this debate. One suggestion was that in return for requiring businesses to accept cash, certain denominations of coin would be done away with—giving with one hand while taking with the other. That fills me with dread. Another suggestion was requiring “exact-amount services”, which is a euphemism for “rounding up”—something priced at 33p would be priced at 35p, for example. That would make no sense in the midst of a cost of living crisis. There is no mandate for it from the public, and it has no legitimacy in the eyes of consumers or, indeed, retailers.

The Minister is here to tell us what the Government have done, but I will make brief reference to the legislation on access to cash, which is entirely welcome. I would love him to talk about free access to cash, but I bet he will not—he has been disappointing me on that front for some time, so I will not hold my breath. I am also a bit frustrated that the policy statement explaining how we will guarantee access to cash will not come out until we pass the legislation, so we cannot judge how spot on it is, but he may be listening to me on that.

I have not heard many people talk about the notion of cashback without purchase, something for which the Government have legislated. It solved a long-term problem known as the £3.22 issue. Someone may want to take out a precise amount of money—they might not want £10 or £20 because they are managing their finances. They cannot take £3.22 out of an ATM, but they can now take out that amount from their local PayPoint in the newsagent without having to make a purchase. It is life changing for many people in areas such as the one I represent, but all the vested interests in this debate hate talking about cashback without purchase. They do not want people to know about it. They would far rather that the most vulnerable people in my constituency went down to a pay-to-use ATM.

The banks have produced some fascinating research into why people in the most deprived parts of this country often go to a pay-to-use ATM, which may charge £2 or £2.50 to take out small amounts of money, when they are actually very near to a free-to-use ATM. Understanding that strange behaviour is a real challenge for the financial services sector, and it is something that I find frustrating about this entire debate.

I commend the work of the access to cash review and Natalie Ceeney, who has done so much on access in recent years. Like her and the group, I believe that banking hubs are the way forward, but I also know from Link’s work scrutinising the impact of bank closures that the introduction of a banking hub is not the only remedy to bank closures. I think of post offices, ATMs, and deposit-taking “reverse” ATMs. I was doing my own private secretary work, as a sort-of pretend Minister, by checking on my phone what happened in Holt when Barclays closed; I understand that an ATM is now going to be installed. When I checked Axminster, I found that its residents are getting a banking hub—I am not sure when, but congratulations on that. I am sure they have heard how good it was in Cambuslang.

Many campaigners ask, “Is this enough? Are we going far enough and fast enough? Why aren’t they all open now? Why doesn’t a banking hub open the moment the bank shuts its doors?” but 38 banking hubs and 38 more deposit-taking ATMs have been announced so far, which is a pretty good first step. I would love things to move faster—that might stop the Daily Mail campaigning against banking hubs—but they are a rather new concept and certain legalities need sorting out. Indeed, in one case, they are still trying to remove asbestos from the preferred location. People who thought that the moment a branch shut a banking hub would pop up as a like-for-like replacement misunderstood the situation.

Campaigners set the bar so high that I think they will not be satisfied until they have a maternity unit included in the hub, as well as everything else—they almost seem not to want to win this battle that they have been fighting for so long. We need to keep the pressure on those introducing the banking hubs; we need to ensure that the pace of their introduction accelerates and that these initial hurdles are overcome, but I do not think we should talk down the idea of banking hubs because somehow they are not perfect.

I wonder if the aspirations are too high. I listened carefully to the House of Lords debate on the Financial Services and Markets Bill, in the special way that the House of Lords does it. Their lordships suggested in one amendment an obligation on banking hubs to have a representative from every single bank. That just is not feasible. Digital-only banks, such as Monzo and First Direct, offer a better service to customers because they do not have the overheads of a physical network. We would wholly undermine their business model if we were to insist that banks like Monzo suddenly have to recruit someone to physically exist in a banking hub. That makes no sense at all.

What the banking hubs should be used for is digital training and addressing financial exclusion. Someone mentioned decimalisation—I think it was the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. To me, a more pertinent example is the switch from analogue to digital television and the emphasis, training and preparation that went into that process, so that no one was left unserved when analogue was switched off. People knew it was coming and were helped through that process. I am not saying that cash will ever be switched off, nor do I want it to be, but we could learn from that process how we walk and talk people through it.

I want to make two final points. One is around deposit-taking ATMs. This may sound like a rather anodyne and technocratic point—I suppose it is—but not all ATMs are equal. Members may have heard me refer earlier to the challenges retailers face in having to go much further to deposit their takings at the end of the day. A deposit-taking ATM is fundamental to solving that problem.

The post office is not always the solution. My post office in Cleveleys is tiny, despite it being a town of 16,000; people queue out the door even when there are no financial services activities, let alone every time a bank branch closes and they have to start using the post office again. I was speaking to the postmaster of the nearest post office to where I live. I have been hearing worrying tales that local businesses are struggling to deposit cash because the banks are putting limits on the amount a business can deposit in any one calendar year, to the point that some businesses are having to shut down, simply because they cannot deposit the cash takings at the end of the day. I tell the financial services sector and all those banks that normally monitor what I say in this place that I am not happy. I expect an email tomorrow morning from at least one of those banks that are obsessed with everything I say. This policy is a real deterrent.

I end on a note of agreement, though, with the UK Cash Supply Alliance. I know I have been giving them a bit of a hard time in the debate. This is the most technocratic issue imaginable, but it is the cost of the hardwiring of our cash system. The wholesale distribution of cash remains far too costly—£5 billion to the economy overall—and there is far too much duplication. We have not seen the radical reform I believe was needed when the Bank of England set up the wholesale distribution steering group to try to find an alternative model. I fear that some in the cash distribution sector are defending their commercial turf under the guise of protecting customer interests. That is simply not good enough.

I had a fascinating trip to Vaultex near Warrington several years ago. Vaultex is one of the cash-handling and cash-distribution centres that covers the north of England. All our bank notes come in and come out of the centre. I have never stood near so much money in my life. There is absolutely no chance of getting in or out with it—it even has a special roof that a helicopter cannot be landed on just to avoid any shenanigans—but what I saw there was duplication after duplication. Every bank required their bank notes to be counted, stored and separated in a specific way; there was no attempt to rationalise the process. I sat there thinking, “If only more banks could agree to handle their money in the same way, it would start to reduce this £5 billion cost.” I do not know how that is going. I gather there were proposals for a public utility model that would help to bring it all together to reduce the costs, but it is such an opaque process. The Bank of England does not update the minutes on its website for this wholesale distribution steering group, so I know very little about what is going on, which is frustrating.

Reducing that £5 billion cost is the answer to what we have been discussing today, making it cheaper and more affordable for small businesses to keep taking cash. If that does not happen, we will have a problem. The best way to protect the acceptance of cash is not by penalising consumers with higher costs or penalising retailers by forcing them to raise costs, but by addressing the reason why retailers choose not to accept cash in the first place, which is about cost and convenience. We should reduce the cost of wholesale distribution, and make depositing cash easier with more deposit-taking ATMs. If we do that, we will start to tackle the vested interests which have hovered ghoulishly over this debate for far too long.