You can watch my speech and the full debate by clicking (here).
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on a subject of particular importance to my constituents in Inverclyde. As Members are aware, there has been a steady decline in the number of bank branches over the past 20 years. Between 1997 and 2014, almost 4,000 bank branches closed across the UK. Worryingly, this rate of decline shows no sign of decreasing, with figures obtained by the BBC indicating that a further 600 branches closed between April 2015 and April 2016. Proportionately, Scotland, Wales and the south-west of England are the hardest hit by closures.
Unfortunately, Inverclyde has not been immune from the effects of this decline and in recent years there have been a number of prominent branch closures in my constituency. My constituents have clearly expressed their opinion about these closures. They feel frustrated and dissatisfied. They feel that their views about an important community service have not been respected.
When the Gourock branch shut in my constituency, the Royal Bank of Scotland gave me four alternatives within travelling distance, one of which is in Dunoon. Those with local knowledge will be aware that 5.72 miles from Gourock might seem fine, but it is not possible to drive there because it is across a body of water! A ferry journey there and back would be required. That is a good instance of where the geography of the area has not been taken into consideration.
When the Port Glasgow branch of RBS closed in 2012, my constituents were told that it was not a problem as they would still have access to the branches in the neighbouring towns of Kilmacolm and Greenock. When RBS took the decision last year to close the Kilmacolm branch, my constituents were told that that was not a problem as they would still have access to the Greenock branch. How long will it be until RBS tells my constituents that it is closing the Greenock branch, but that that is not a problem because there is a branch in Glasgow?
RBS made a promise that they would never close the “last bank in town”, but since 2014 that is precisely what they have done—165 times. Kilmacolm is now one such place without a bank. Instead, it is serviced by a mobile banking van of the kind we might see travelling around rural communities such as Mull or Iona. In January, RBS invited me to Kilmacolm to see how the new system and the mobile banking van worked in practice. I watched constituents lining up on the pavement in the pouring rain waiting to be served. They stood outside in the open, often with large sums of cash in their bags. When customers eventually reached the front of the queue, they had little or no privacy in which to carry out their personal banking. The procedure was even worse for elderly people and those with a disability, since the van’s narrow, steep and slippery stairs restricted accessibility. For example, a person in a wheelchair can expect to be served outside in the open, as it is physically impossible for them to enter the vehicle.
There was anger and frustration among customers using the service. Their most pressing concern was about the security of undertaking their personal banking in this way. The van was set up just metres from the empty shop unit that had once contained the permanent branch, which only compounded the agitation of customers as they stood in the rain waiting to be served. I have since revisited the van several times, and it is obvious that it is not an acceptable substitute for a bank branch permanently based in a community.
Gourock has also been hit by recent bank closures. Earlier this month, the Bank of Scotland closed the only remaining bank in the town. I appreciate that the way people bank is evolving and moving into the digital world—I wrote IT banking systems in a previous life—but it is important that all people within society be catered for, and that is not happening. The Bank of Scotland report into the Gourock branch closure showed that 44% of its customers were aged 55 or over, and undoubtedly some will not have been comfortable with online banking. That figure alone should have been sufficient to keep a branch open as a service to the community.
I know that banks undertake consultations and implement transitional arrangements, but are increased profits an acceptable excuse for providing a reduced service to the community? Perhaps a balance can be found, but I fear that branch closures are already undermining the service required by my constituents. Banks have an obligation to communities and play a key role in local economies. My constituency is fighting a war of attrition against economic stagnation and a declining population. High street bank closures are only making it harder for us to overcome those difficulties.
I shall end with a direct appeal to the major banks. I understand their need to evolve and adapt, but the closures have come too fast and lasted too long. It is time for that to end. I hope that the banks will give serious consideration to the concerns raised in the Chamber today.