JEFF PRESTRIDGE: Message is clear, Government action on access to cash in our High Streets is imperative now
Nearly two years ago, I attended a ‘cash summit’ event hosted by consumer group Which? It was a meeting designed to discuss how the country’s rush towards a cashless society (contactless payment rather than banknotes and coins) could be slowed down so that millions of people dependent upon cash would not become financially excluded.
The event sticks in my mind for all kinds of reasons. First, I remember arriving at Which?’s swish offices in London, looking as if I had just been swimming fully-clothed in the nearby Serpentine. Boy, did the heavens open that morning – and boy, did I make a mistake deciding to travel there on board a hired Santander bike.
Second, I recall being very disappointed at the fact that John Glen, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, failed to turn up and tell us what the Government had up its sleeve to save cash. An underling stepped into his shoes and proceeded to tell us the square root of nothing.
Go slow: Rishi Sunak promised legislation 14 months ago, but the Government has been unforthcoming on the issue ever since
The only positive memory from the event was listening to the diminutive – but formidable – Natalie Ceeney (the queen of cash) talk passionately about why access to cash must be maintained.
This Thursday, Which? is running a follow-up summit, although lingering lockdown restrictions mean it will take the form of a webinar (at least I won’t get wet).
Ceeney, author of the most authoritative report ever written on access to cash, will be returning to the fray.
Other speakers include the boss of Which? and the banking director of the Post Office – an organisation currently mired in scandal over its despicable treatment of hundreds of sub-postmasters, who were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting as a result of a Post Office computer system riddled with glitches.
Glen is scheduled to speak although I wouldn’t bet my house on him attending – a recent request by The Mail on Sunday to get his view on the Government’s approach to safeguarding cash was met with a wall of silence.
The summit could not be better timed. By Thursday, we will have a clearer idea as to whether the Government intends introducing legislation to ensure cash remains a viable payment option on the high street.
Rishi Sunak – Glen’s boss – promised such legislation 14 months ago, but the Government has been unforthcoming on the issue ever since.
There is a chance it might be included in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, but money experts aren’t confident about such an outcome.
Instead, they believe the Government will deflect criticism of foot-dragging by pointing to the wider availability of high street cashback facilities.
This is likely to happen shortly, after legislation was passed that permits cashback without the need for a customer to make a purchase. While this is a welcome step – hats off to the tenacious Lord Holmes of Richmond for making it happen – it is not the solution. Much more needs to be done to ensure consumers can continue to use – and access – cash.
As my colleague Toby Walne reports opposite, new ways of keeping access to cash alive are being tested as part of a scheme overseen by Ceeney and funded by the banks. Some of these ideas, most notably community banking hubs in towns where there is no longer a bank branch, make great sense and should be rolled out nationally.
Government legislation would help this happen, especially if (as Which? urges) it empowered the Financial Conduct Authority to oversee access to cash and hold the banks to account when they do not act in the best interests of communities. Closing the last bank in town is not community-friendly – agreeing to support a branch where the overheads are shared by all the banks is.
Preservation of the free-to-use cash machine network is also imperative. Two of the country’s leading independent operators of cash machines – Cardtronics and NoteMachine – have just fired off a letter urging the Government to review the fees banks pay them when customers use one of their ATMs. Unless they get a better deal, they warn that further shrinkage of the ATM network is inevitable.
The message is clear. Government action on access to cash is imperative – now.
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