Banks must move swiftly to guarantee access to money for everyone as the cash system in part of the UK veers towards market failure, a national charity has said.
Age UK warned that millions of UK citizens are cut off from cash and banking services. The lack of facilities is causing many to fall victim to financial abuse after being forced to rely on others to make transactions on their behalf, the charity found.
The charity wants government legislation to guarantee that a cash machine or bank branch remains within reasonable travelling distance of every home in the UK.
Caroline Abrahams, the charity director of Age UK, said: “It’s time for the government to recognise how important banknotes and coins are to all our lives and treat the cash system as the essential piece of infrastructure it is – just like utilities, post and broadband.”
Universal service obligations (USOs) already exist for essential services including water, electricity, post and, more recently, broadband. Age UK is calling on the government to urgently introduce a USO for cash.
Abrahams added: “If the government is serious about ‘building back better’ after the pandemic, then they must legislate to protect cash access within a reasonable travel distance of people’s homes. This will not only help the millions of citizens of all ages who risk being excluded from society if cash is allowed to die, but can also help revitalise our high streets as local businesses strive to recover from the last nightmarish 15 months.”
Age UK’s Financial Lives 2020 Survey found that about 2.4 million people aged 65 and over in the UK relied on cash for almost all their day-to-day payments – about one in five older people.
But the survey found millions were unable to access the cash they needed to pay for essentials thanks to the decline of high street banks and local ATMs. Almost 13,000 free-to-use cash machines closed between 2017 and 2020 – a drop of nearly 24%.
The problem is compounded by shops increasing refusing to accept cash payments. The survey found that one quarter of respondents had been refused when they or someone on their behalf had tried to pay with cash.
Gareth Shaw, the head of money at Which?, said: “Cash continues to be a vital way to pay for millions of people and it is clear that if the rapid transition to digital payments is not handled carefully, some groups of people – including older and vulnerable consumers – will be unable to purchase essential products and services because they cannot access or pay with cash.”
Alongside the plummeting number of ATMs, banks are deserting many communities, with thousands of branches shut, reducing their hours or scheduled to close. Since January 2015, 4,299 banks have shut. Between 2012 and 2020, the south-west of England – the “oldest” region of the UK – had 33% of its bank and building society branches closed, the highest proportion in the country.
Contrary to popular belief, the report stated, it is not only rural areas suffering from declining cash access. Recent research by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) found that areas classified as “multicultural metropolitans” witnessed the biggest decrease in free-to-use ATMs between March 2018 and 2020.
Last month, the economic secretary to the Treasury committed the government to protecting access to cash, announcing a consultation on legislative proposals this summer.
A Treasury spokesperson said: “We’ve already legislated to make it easier for businesses of all sizes to offer cashback without a purchase and in May we outlined the next stage in delivering on our pledge of legislation to protect access to cash for those who need it.”
‘Not having a bank nearby has had a profound effect’
Rachel Pillar is the daughter of 89-year-old Barnard Harlock in Dronfield, a town in North East Derbyshire.
“My father has banked with HSBC all his life and he’s too old to change the bank as he wouldn’t cope with anything different. He keeps getting locked out of his account and the bank ask him to travel 14 miles to Chesterfield where there is a long walk on cobbles from the car park to the bank. He can’t do this,” she said.
“There are so many passwords online that he can’t remember them. He struggles with a mobile so can’t access his account because the bank texts him a pass number each time. Telephone banking is also difficult because of passwords and the fact he can’t understand the people on the end of the phone.
“This means that he can no longer easily access his account without a lot of support. He can use the post office but there is only one nearby. It has long queues and he can’t stand for long.
“Not having a bank nearby has had a profound effect on him and made him feel he has lost his independence. The bank is uninterested. For those elderly people who don’t have trustworthy people to help them this is a significant blow. Many are now keeping money at home which makes them very vulnerable.”
‘It’s quite scary watching the banks close’
Lionel Burman, a 93-year-old retired museum curator in West Kirby, Wirral, said: “I bank with Nationwide; we had a branch but it closed and the nearest is 11 miles away in Heswall. I no longer drive and we have no bus service. A taxi would cost £20 return. Because I cannot pay cash into the bank, I walk around with up to £100 in my wallet which makes me very vulnerable.”
Sandra, Burman’s 79-year-old wife, said: “We used to have five banks here and lots of ATMs but now we just have two ATMs. It’s quite scary watching the banks close and the ATMs being taken away. If they take these last two away, I have no idea how we’ll access our money. We’d have to take a taxi to Heswall all the time but as the taxi can only be paid for with cash – that would be difficult if we’d run out. Lionel can’t travel because he can hardly walk, so it’s down to me. I have all my strength at the moment but if I didn’t, I don’t know what we’d do.”
– Guardian UK