Which? is urging the UK’s eight largest retail banks to publicly commit to maintaining cash access for the millions of people in the UK who still rely on it, as its latest analysis shows that 13,000 cash machines have disappeared in just three years.
In a letter to the banks, Which? Chief Executive Anabel Hoult outlines how the coronavirus pandemic has exerted enormous pressure on the cash network, and calls for immediate action to safeguard access to cash to ensure that cash remains a viable payment option.
Which? research last week showed that nearly 10 million people are not ready – or able – to give up cash. However, despite legislation being announced to protect cash for these consumers at last year’s Budget, there is still no timetable in place for its introduction.
The delay has seen what was already a fragile system weakened even further, and last week LINK, the UK’s largest cash machine network, warned that unless action was taken the number of ATMs in the UK could halve in the next two years.
The slow pace of progress towards legislation has created a dangerous vacuum, in which cash machine and bank branch closures continue apace with little scrutiny or oversight to ensure the changes meet the needs of consumers as well as business.
While potential alternatives to mitigate these closures have been proposed, such as cashback without purchase from shops, the speed at which they are being developed and rolled out simply is not quick enough to stem the losses to the existing cash network that show no sign of slowing down.
Since the start of 2020, 3,300 free-to-use cash machines have closed across the UK. The overall number of ATMs in the UK has also fallen by 13,000 in the last three years, falling from 67,300 to 54,400.
In order to prevent yet more damage being inflicted as national restrictions continue, the consumer champion has given firms a two-week deadline to confirm that they will continue membership of two vital industry schemes in the interim period until legislation comes into force, with a regulator in place to ensure that it delivers for cash-reliant consumers.
These voluntary schemes are managed by LINK and the Post Office – both of which currently act as vital guard rails for the UK retail banking system, protecting the viability of cash withdrawal and basic banking services for millions of people. If one of the major retail banks were to withdraw their membership, neither would be viable.
This would mean that LINK’s financial inclusion programme, which is designed to improve access to cash for the most vulnerable and deprived communities, would be under threat, while consumers who live in areas where the Post Office is often the only remaining source for accessing cash would be forced to travel much longer distances to withdraw their money.
Research from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) last year revealed that during the first national lockdown, cash machine closures had already led to tens of thousands of people being cut off from local access to cash.
While these measures will not address all of the problems with the cash network, they are a critically important step in securing the viability of cash until longer-term solutions are agreed and implemented.
Which? is concerned that it will be extremely difficult to reintroduce access to cash in some communities should these voluntary agreements be undermined before legislation is introduced. The consumer champion is urging firms to recognise that a bank’s individual commercial decisions can have a profound impact on the wider cash ecosystem.
As well as this commitment from banks, Which? is also calling on the government to urgently set out its timetable for legislation, and press ahead with giving the FCA the responsibility to oversee the protection of cash in the UK to ensure that it remains a viable payment option as long as people need it.
Which? will provide an update on how banks have responded to our request for continued membership of these schemes once the deadline has passed.
Anabel Hoult, CEO of Which?, said:
“Ensuring some of the most vulnerable members of society have the ability to access and spend the cash they rely on to pay for essential goods and services must be a priority for the government, the financial regulator and banks, not an afterthought.
“While there is no doubt that more people than ever are able to benefit from digital banking, that does not detract from the need to provide reasonable access to cash for the millions who need it.
“It is imperative that banks continue to be part of the existing access schemes in place to ensure that the availability of cash is not left to erode even further while legislation is being passed. The government now needs to clarify its timeline for when new laws will actually be in place to protect access to cash.”
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.
Which? has written to Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, NatWest, Santander UK, Nationwide Building Society, Halifax and TSB.
Which? understands that negotiations for extending the Post Office Banking Framework are currently in progress.