3 December 2020
Jesse Norman responds to debate on access to cash

Jesse Norman responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on access to and acceptance of cash during the covid-19 outbreak.


The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman)

It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Ms Ali. I am sure all colleagues will join me in taking my hat off to the genius of improvisation and quick thinking that allowed our colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue), to take the Chair—the vital element. Thank you, Ms Ali, for coming in at the end and allowing us all to take our positions in the Chamber.

This has been a very good debate—very thoughtful, very constructive, very well informed and on a very important topic—and I thank everyone who has made contributions to it. I am sure everyone present will join me in thanking in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing the debate, and also for his excellent and very thoughtful speech. He picked up on themes that he and many other hon. Members have been pressing over the previous years and months. His knowledge of and engagement in the issue of cash access and the use of cash are well known, and I thank him and everyone else for their contributions.

As colleagues will be aware, I am not the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. He, tragically, is unavoidably detained with the trivial matter of the Financial Services Bill—he sends his apologies and thanks. It has been mentioned by several colleagues in this debate that he has been very accessible to them in discussing these issues; his style is a very open and friendly one. We try to do that in the Treasury and he has been an exemplar. I am sure that colleagues will continue to engage with him. I am afraid that, compared to his grandmastery and immense skill, I am very much a novice chess player in this area.

It is clear that digital payments are, as colleagues have mentioned, playing more and more of a role in the lives of people across the country and in the activities of business. In many ways, this is to be profoundly welcomed; it allows for faster, cheaper payments and for easier management of household and business finances—those are the forces that in large part have powered the change hitherto.

The statistics are clear: in 2009, some 58% of payments were made using cash; just a decade later in 2019, it was 23%. That astonishing rate of change has now been accelerated by covid-19, as colleagues have said.

It is important to say that cash has not, by any means, had its day; it is still the second most popular form of payment in this country. According to figures published last year, a reported 2.1 million people mainly use cash for everyday payments, many of whom may be vulnerable, elderly or on low incomes. However, the pandemic has clearly had a marked impact on cash usage. We recognise that and, as I think colleagues have noticed, the Government have not been slow to press forward on the issue. That, of course, creates the impetus and energy that they have shown in bringing attention to these issues in the debate.

I reassure colleagues that the Treasury has been working very closely with regulators and industry to try to ensure that people have access to essential banking services, and to cash in particular. As colleagues will be aware, the Joint Authorities Cash Strategy group only launched in May 2019, but it is very much engaged in facilitating co-ordination and seeking to ensure comprehensive oversight of the UK’s cash infrastructure. If I may, I will talk a little more about the wider picture, then I will come to specific comments and questions that have been raised by colleagues in the debate.

The JACS group is chaired by the Treasury, and brings together the Payment Systems Regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England. The group has continued to try to coordinate efforts throughout the pandemic and, as Members will be aware, it published an update on the actions of its members in July 2020. Also in the summer, the FCA and the PSR published a statement setting out their approach to addressing issues in relation to access to cash, including local-level areas that have lost access to cash. In September, the FCA introduced new guidance for banks, building societies and credit unions when they are considering closing branches or ATMs.

I think it fair to say that throughout the pandemic, the regulators on the one side and the industry on the other have taken steps to support customers who are reliant on cash. Those have included more proactive communications, cash deliveries to people’s homes, and issuing carer cards to trusted third parties. As a result, the vast majority of people have continued to have access to cash during the pandemic. That, of course, does not address those who may have been struggling, whose position has been highlighted by many of the individual stories told in the debate.

There is the question not merely of cash access, but of cash acceptance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys highlighted. The one is as essential as the other. Of course, to help to control the virus, businesses and individuals have been encouraged to follow the latest Government advice, which involves a range of measures to protect personal health, but also to minimise contact in transactions. However, it does remain the choice of an individual retailor whether to accept a particular form of payment, be that cash or card. What is interesting is how different groups, including the FCA, the PSR and the Bank of England, as I have mentioned, are joining forces to improve data collection and, therefore, gain a better understanding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys raised the question of mandation. The Government do not believe that mandating cash acceptance is the answer, but exploring means to incentivise the acceptance of cash is high on the agenda and was a key issue raised in the call for evidence. If protecting access to cash is a complex issue, requiring a long-term and collaborative effort, it is no less important that that work continues across industry regulators and the Government.

The ATM network has been mentioned by colleagues. LINK, which is the largest network of ATMs, has taken action to ensure that remote and deprived areas continue to have access to free-to-use machines. The Government are working to bring legislation to protect access to cash to ensure that the nation’s cash infrastructure is sustainable over the longer-term, as the hon. Lady for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) highlighted, and as was prefigured in the March 2020 Budget.

Jim Shannon 

As I said in my contribution, the Association of Convenience Stores has put forward ideas for helping the ATM system. I realise this is not the Minister’s responsibility to be honest, but has the Department had the opportunity to talk to those people to see how we could work together?

Jesse Norman 

I thank the hon. Member very much. I do not know whether the Department has had the opportunity to talk to the Association of Convenience Stores specifically, but I do know that the issue is very much on the agenda—it is certainly on the agenda of the Economic Secretary. It is important to realise, and to remind everyone, that the call for evidence on access to cash only closed last week. The timeliness of this debate rams home that point, and rightly so, but it is merely a week. It says more than I could for the high esteem in which colleagues across the House must hold the Government, if they think we can make a decision without having published a response and having only closed the call for evidence last week.

Nevertheless, the call for evidence is an important aspect. It set out the Government’s view that cash has the potential to continue to play an important role—and cashback within the cash infrastructure—and also asked for views on how that can be achieved. We will publish a summary of responses to the call for evidence and set out steps alongside that in due course. As colleagues will know, the call for evidence asked for views on key considerations associated with cash access, including deposit and withdrawal facilities, cash acceptance and regulatory oversight of the system.

The call for evidence also set out the Government’s views on the aims of legislation: that it should be proportionate, flexible, cost-effective, efficient and sustainable. The Government’s view, and we should be perfectly clear about this, is that legislation will need to ensure that business and people can have access to cash withdrawal and depositing facilities within a reasonable travel distance, as is needed in their day to day lives. I remind colleagues of that central point.

Yvonne Fovargue 

I accept that the purpose is to have reasonable access to cash within a travelling distance. Is that to free cash machines, because that is a key point?

Jesse Norman 

The Government absolutely recognise—I am not going to comment on the shape of what is to come, because I do not think that would be appropriate—the concern about free access to cash. As the hon. Lady will know, a lot of work has been done on trying to preserve inclusivity in the face of markets and pandemic-induced change that may be prejudicing that access.

Patricia Gibson 

Will the Minister give way?

Jesse Norman 

I really do not have much time, and I want to respond to the comments and to give my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys the chance to wind up, so let me press on with a couple of key things.

It is worth mentioning that the industry is already taking action to support cashback. Mastercard and Visa have already announced incentives, and of course we have the community access to cash pilots.

The set of authorities that govern this area has been raised. It is important to say that the Government’s view is that the FCA may well be best positioned to take on the function of co-ordinating in an overall responsible way, while we also intend for the PSR and the Bank of England to continue their existing functions. As colleagues will know, the FCA already has a statutory objective to secure an appropriate degree of protection for consumers and existing regulatory relationships with industry.

My hon. Friend asked about wholesale cash distribution. As I think he knows, there was a previous consultation paper by the Bank of England on the future of the wholesale cash distribution model, which set out a high-level road map. A lot of work is being done between the Treasury and the Bank to address those issues.

The hon. Member for Makerfield will be aware that there are existing policies within the LINK ATM network, in particular, to protect the distribution of free cash through ATMs. The Treasury is supporting the Bank of England in trying to enable a sustainable model—sustainability is important—to permit effective wholesale cash distribution.

I ought to sit down now. I thank colleagues very much indeed for their interesting and constructive contributions to the debate.