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Which? sets banks two-week deadline to protect the fragile cash system

10 million people are not ready - or able - to give up using cash

Which? sets banks two-week deadline to protect the fragile cash system

Which? is urging the UK’s eight largest retail banks to publicly commit to maintaining cash access for the millions of people who still rely on it.

Our latest analysis shows that 13,000 cash machines have disappeared in just three years and nearly 10 million people are not ready – or able – to give up using cash.

In last year’s Budget, legislation was announced to protect cash for consumers, but there’s still no timetable in place for its introduction. The delay has seen what was already a fragile system weakened further with the coronavirus pandemic adding to the strain.

Link, the UK’s largest cash machine network, warned last week that unless action was taken the number of ATMs in the UK could halve in the next two years.


What we’re calling on banks to do

Which? Chief Executive Anabel Hoult has written to the eight largest retail banks in the UK (Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, NatWest, Santander, Nationwide, Halifax and TSB) calling on them to take immediate action to safeguard access to cash.

We’ve given the banks a two-week deadline to confirm that they will continue membership of two vital industry schemes, Link and the Post Office Banking Framework, until legislation comes into force.

Link –  continued membership of Link will mean the Financial Inclusion and the Protected ATM programmes, which are focused on improving free access to cash in the most deprived areas of the UK, will remain in place.

The Post Office Banking Framework –  allows banking customers to perform basic banking services such as withdrawing cash from their usual bank account using their card. Post Office branches are often the only remaining local source for accessing cash.

Why protecting cash matters

The slow pace of progress towards legislation to protect access to cash 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.

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 past three years, from 67,300 to 54,400.  

Just last week, HSBC revealed plans to close 82 of its branches by the end of September 2021, reducing its network from 593 to 511. By the end of the year, HSBC will have closed the third-highest number of banks, behind NatWest (639) and Barclays (605). 

Potential alternatives to mitigate closures have been proposed, such as cashback without purchase from shops. However, Which? believes the speed at which they are being developed and rolled out is not quick enough to stem the losses to the existing cash network which show no sign of slowing down.    

The impact of coronavirus on cash

The coronavirus pandemic has exerted enormous pressure on the already fragile cash network and accelerated the pace at which retailers have gone cashless.

Recent Which? research shows one in three people have tried to pay for something in cash and been unable to do so since the first national lockdown.

At the start of the pandemic, there were mixed messages about the safety of cash, but since then the Bank of England has provided clarity on the issue.

In November it stated that ‘any risk from handling cash should be low,’ particularly compared with ‘high-touch’ objects such as shopping baskets, self-checkout touchscreens or products for sale.

We’re encouraging people to report problems paying with cash through our cash acceptance tool. 

Will the public commitment save cash?

A commitment from the eight banks for continued membership of the Link and Post Office schemes will not address all the problems with the cash network, but it’s a critically important step in securing the viability of cash until longer-term solutions are agreed and rolled out.  

Which? is concerned that it will be difficult to reintroduce access to cash in some communities should these voluntary agreements be undermined before legislation is introduced. 

We will update how banks have responded to our request for continued membership of these schemes once the deadline has passed.   

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 Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) responsibility to oversee the protection of cash in the UK.

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