The UK's largest retail banks have made public commitments to protect the cash network, as the need for legislation becomes urgent.
While all the banks responded positively, the varying timeframes of their commitment underline the critical need for government action.
In , legislation was announced to protect cash for consumers, but there's still no timetable in place for its introduction. Urgent action is required to ensure the long-term future of the cash system in the UK.
Which? wrote to the banks asking them to guarantee continued membership of schemes managed by Link, the UK's largest cash machine network, and the Post Office, which are critical to protecting the current provision for cash withdrawal until legislation is introduced.
Reassuringly, banks pointed to the importance of safeguarding the cash network for cash-dependent customers. There was general agreement that both Link and the Post Office have a crucial role to play in the short to medium-term future.
However, all of the responses stopped short of explicitly committing to either scheme until legislation is introduced. This is largely due to the lack of clarity on the timing of the government's plans.
It's encouraging that some banks have made commitments until they expect legislation to pass. However, without clear direction from the government on the future of cash, it is unclear what will happen if timetables exceed banks' expectations.
Which? is concerned that banks are unable to commit to anything beyond their existing agreements and is calling on the government to urgently set out a roadmap for protecting access to cash for those who depend on it.
There is a risk that if this roadmap isn't set out as soon as possible, irreversible damage could be done to the UK's cash infrastructure in the interim.
If even one bank was to withdraw support from either Link or the Post Office, with the latter's agreement with banks ending at the end of next year, widespread cash access will no longer be viable.
Despite the fact that 10 million aren't ready to lose access to cash, the cash network continues to shrink.
Since the start of 2020, 3,300 free-to-use cash machines have closed across the UK, with 431 banks closing over the same period, at the rate of a bank a day.
The overall number of ATMs in the UK has fallen by almost 20% in the past three years from 67,300 to 54,400. The number of bank branches has fallen by 40% - from 9,900 to 6,000 - since 2015.
While a Post Office is not a perfect substitute for a bank, it can offer essential cash services in communities that have no other means of access.
The pandemic has piled further pressure on the UK's cash infrastructure, which has been hit by a sharp decline in businesses accepting cash and the closure of thousands of ATMs and bank branches over the past 12 months.
Which? is now urging the government to publish its vision for the future of cash. The government must work with industry and regulators to set out the steps that will be taken to develop and introduce legislation at the earliest opportunity.
As part of this, the government must also give the FCA the responsibility to oversee the protection of cash in the UK to ensure that it remains a viable payment option for as long as it's needed.
Anabel Hoult, Which? chief executive, said: 'The rapid shift to a cashless society threatens to cut off access to those who depend on cash to pay for essential products and services.
'It's reassuring that all the major banks have reiterated their commitment to protecting cash for these customers, but without a clear indication of when legislation will be introduced, there remains significant uncertainty for what this might mean in the not too distant future.
'The government must set out a roadmap for legislation at the earliest opportunity to ensure that cash remains a viable payment method for as long as it is needed.'