High Street Banks and Banking Hubs - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:07 pm ar 25 Ionawr 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Livermore Lord Livermore Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 3:07, 25 Ionawr 2024

My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield, on securing this debate, and for her excellent opening speech, a great deal of which I agreed with.

As many noble Lords have said, this is indeed a very timely debate. Around half of all bank branches in the UK have closed since 2015. That is almost 6,000 banks closing their doors, with some regions such as the south-west or Yorkshire losing nearly two-thirds of their branches. This has cut off countless people from essential services and has been a major factor in the decline of Britain’s high streets.

It is of course welcome that, after many years of delay, the Financial Services and Markets Act finally introduced protections for access to cash, but far too little has been done to protect essential face-to-face banking services, which the most vulnerable in our society depend on for financial advice and support.

Instead, the Government have relied solely on a voluntary arrangement with the banks, which has managed to deliver just 30 out of a promised 70 banking hubs. As a result, 33 towns across the UK are now left without a single bank, despite all of them being promised a banking hub over six months ago. Even if delivered, the promise of 70 hubs under the voluntary arrangement is completely inadequate to meet the scale of the problem.

In the last 24 months alone, an additional 320 towns have seen their last remaining bank branch close, leaving more and more people and small businesses in banking deserts, without any options to bank locally. My noble friend Lord Berkeley gave me just one example from the Isles of Scilly, where he lives. The last bank there closed 10 years ago. The population of 2,500 people have to go to Penzance to visit a bank, at a cost of a £160 return ferry journey, just to use essential banking services.

Cases such as this have led the Labour Party to commit to a national strategy on banking hubs to quickly deliver at least 350 hubs on Britain’s high streets. As part of that commitment, areas that currently have no high street banks would be first in the queue. We will work with the banks and give the FCA the powers it needs to stop people being left in these banking deserts, guaranteeing communities access to face-to-face banking services.

To be clear, this does not mean that we believe banks should be prevented from closing branches that are no longer needed—far from it. In fact, where possible, access to face-to-face services is in many cases better delivered through a shared banking hub, whether through the Post Office or other models of community provision. Doing so can lead to significant cost savings for banks too. FCA data shows that, whereas a bank branch costs over £600,000 a year to run, that cost is less than £200,000 for a banking hub—a figure which itself will be divided among the participating banks according to local market share.

It is, of course, also inevitable that payment and banking systems will continue to innovate. This is a good thing—online banking is a far more convenient way for many people to manage their finances—but we must ensure this digital revolution does not further deepen financial exclusion, which means we must protect face-to-face services while also putting in place a proper strategy for financial and digital inclusion. Here, again, banking hubs can play a vital role. These spaces have the potential to tackle digital exclusion through their dedicated staff, who can teach people how to bank online and provide internet access for those without it, as well as to promote financial inclusion by providing access to financial advice for people who are struggling.

Labour’s banking hub guarantee will also be a key part of our plan to reverse the decline of Britain’s high streets by ensuring that working people and local businesses have the banking services they need on their high streets. The community access to cash pilots demonstrated that shared banking hubs can be a major boost to local businesses in communities where they have lost every single one of their bank branches. In the areas that trialled banking hubs, 34% of businesses reported they could reduce the amount of time they needed to close their shop in order to carry out their banking; 37% of businesses reported that footfall had increased in their shop; and 51% of consumers reported shopping locally more as a result of the pilot services. This rose to 69% among respondents who considered themselves to be financially vulnerable.

The national rollout of banking hubs can play a vital role in providing much-needed face-to-face banking services. It could help tackle financial exclusion and could be worth billions of pounds to small businesses and high streets across the country. So I end by asking the Minister two questions. Will she commit to giving the Financial Conduct Authority the power to regulate and protect essential in-person banking services for communities, comparable to the regulatory powers it already has to maintain access to cash? Will the Government match Labour’s plan to work with the banks and the Financial Conduct Authority to rapidly expedite the rollout of at least 350 banking hubs in the communities with the highest need for essential in-person banking services? If we prioritise it properly, a national network of banking hubs could tackle ghost high streets and ensure that every community has access to the high street banking services they need.