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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, December 14, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 14 December 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Bank Branch Closures, Draft Spending and Tax Plans 2018-19, Race Equality, Writers to the Signet Dependants’ Annuity Fund Amendment (Scotland) Bill: Final Stage, Decision Time


Contents


Bank Branch Closures

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-09362, in the name of Kate Forbes, on bank branch closures in Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

This is probably the most subscribed members’ business debate that we have had. We are really pushed for time because we will have statements this afternoon from 2 o’clock, so I cannot extend the debate. Therefore, timing is crucial. I will try to get through everyone. Members speaking in the open debate will have one and a half minutes.

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

How long?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

One and a half minutes.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Are you saying that this is a half-an-hour debate and that it will go no further?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That will be at my discretion. We need time to fix the chamber for this afternoon’s formal business, and I do not have the time to extend this members’ business debate as I would usually do given the number of members who want to speak in it.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament is deeply concerned by the successive waves of bank branch closures across Scotland in 2017, including the recent announcement that RBS plans to close 62 branches; recognises that, while many customers choose to bank online, not every person or business can access all services in this manner and might have to travel over an hour to their nearest branch; believes that these closures will have the greatest impact on older and vulnerable customers who depend on staff and services in their local branch, cash-based businesses that need to make deposits and withdrawals as locally as possible and rural communities, such as those in Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, which it believes have been almost abandoned by the banks in recent years, and notes the calls on the banks responsible to improve their customer service to loyal and dependent customers.

12:44  

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

We are having this debate because so many people across Scotland feel powerless as national banks close branches at a faster rate than ever before, withdrawing from communities and leaving many customers behind. So many members want to speak in the debate because we have a responsibility to highlight our constituents’ concerns, despite banking being a reserved matter and the Scottish Government having no formal power to intervene. My colleague Ian Blackford MP raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and I am pleased to raise it here today.

The recent announcement by the Royal Bank of Scotland that it will close 62 branches in Scotland is just the latest such announcement, but it is certainly the most ruthless and it means that there will be only 89 RBS branches open in Scotland compared to around 300 in April 2013. I believe that RBS should reverse its decision not least because, in 2008, we collectively bailed out the Royal Bank of Scotland and we, the taxpayers, are still the majority shareholder. The very customers who feel powerless and will be the most disadvantaged are those whose taxes funded that bailout.

Moreover, RBS is not the only bank that is closing branches—I have no doubt that other members who speak in the debate will talk about closures by the Bank of Scotland, the Clydesdale Bank and others—and it is the most fragile and vulnerable customers who will suffer most from those branch closures. Yes, many people are choosing to bank online or on their phone app, but not everybody is, not everybody can and not everybody will. The concern is about the older and vulnerable customers who do not have access to the internet and still visit their local branch on a weekly basis because they trust the staff and they struggle to access services in other ways.

Dr Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

Does the member agree that RBS’s initial announcement, in which it reassured people on the island of Barra that they could still use bank and ATM facilities in Lochboisdale, some 27 miles away by sea, shows that RBS has a complete indifference to the needs of island customers in particular?

Kate Forbes

I agree with the member that it is the communities of remote and rural Scotland, which have been badly hit by closures already and which have unreliable ATMs and patchy broadband, that will suffer the most.

Kyle of Lochalsh, whose RBS branch is to close, attracts hundreds of visitors during the summer and has a lot of small businesses and residents, but almost three quarters of its population cannot access broadband speeds of up to 10Mbps. If RBS’s closures go ahead in six months’ time, 26 bank branches across the Highlands will have closed in the past two and a half years: 14 RBS branches, 10 Bank of Scotland branches and two Clydesdale branches. Cash-based businesses that operate in largely cash-based economies such as the tourism economy, which is a big growth sector in the Highlands, will also struggle.

When RBS closes its branch in Beauly in six months’ time, it will be closing the last bank branch in the town. There are 13 towns in Scotland where the last bank branch will be leaving, despite RBS’s commitment not to close the last bank in town. What will that mean? Alasdair Allan has highlighted what it will mean for his island community, and for my communities it could mean up to an hour or more of travel to a branch for older people, for businesses that have tight timescales and for customers who, for a host of reasons, rely on public transport.

Last week, I visited three of the four RBS branches in my constituency that face closure—in Beauly, Kyle of Lochalsh and Aviemore—and I will visit the Mallaig branch soon. Those closures will come swiftly after Bank of Scotland branch closures in Fortrose, Broadford, Kingussie and Beauly. There is no doubt that branch staff are doing everything that they can to support customers and advise them about alternatives such as depositing and withdrawing cash at the Post Office, visiting a mobile branch or accessing the nearest ATM. I was amazed at the dedication and care of the RBS staff and managers in Kyle, Beauly and Aviemore, whose sole focus at the moment is the customers, whom they have known for years. Those staff and managers did not make the closure decisions, but they are the ones who are taking the flak and dealing with anxious and worried customers. I recommend that any customers who are concerned pop into their branch as soon as possible to speak to a member of staff.

I call on RBS to reconsider its decision to close those branches for the sake of the people of Kyle, Mallaig, Beauly and Aviemore and for the sake of communities across Scotland.

12:49  

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank Kate Forbes for securing the debate.

RBS’s decision to close 62 branches in Scotland has been met with justified anger. Frankly, it is no wonder. In 2009, RBS boasted that it was “Here for you”, wherever “you” may live. However, it appears that that is not now the case.

When the going got tough for RBS, the taxpayers did not desert the bank; they rescued it. In return, RBS has been promising to maintain branches across the country. Now, RBS is deserting rural Scotland and, as Kate Forbes has eloquently said, the Highlands will be one of the areas that are hardest hit by that. If RBS does not back down from these closures, there will be a real threat to the high streets in the Highlands and to rural businesses such as tourism businesses. Let us not pretend that anything else will be the case.

As Kate Forbes said, branches—along with their ATMs—are closing in Kyle, Mallaig, Nairn, Aviemore, Beauly, Granton-on-Spey, Inverness, Tain, Tongue and Wick. Customers and businesses need the reassuring presence of a local branch alongside the first-class digital service that they get—if they can get it, because, of course, in areas across the Highlands, the broadband is so poor that digital banking is just a dream.

It is clear that not enough thought has been put into the decision to close local branches, and I urge RBS to reconsider. I call on RBS to stand by its customers—the very customers who stood by it in the hard times that it faced.

12:51  

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am an ex-employee of RBS and receive a monthly pension from it. I thank Kate Forbes for bringing the debate to the chamber.

I joined Royscot Financial Services in 1990. That company dealt in financial services and was part of the RBS group of companies. When I joined RBS, the shares were worth £1. Steadily, over the years, the share price climbed as the bank made what some would call extortionate profits. The bank wanted to make a £2 billion profit to fit in with the year 2000, and it did. In fact, it fact went on to make annual profits of between £6 billion and £12 billion in the early part of this century. Those were heady days, and the price per share finally reached £20. Buying other banks was the downfall of RBS. The price per share fell like a stone and reached—I believe—10p at its lowest.

I blame the stock market and certain people who should have known better for the bank’s downfall. Customers should not pay for those people’s mistakes. RBS promised that there would always be a local branch in people’s high streets, but it is now making many of its loyal staff redundant and is closing branches, including two in my constituency.

RBS says that it is closing the branches because of falling footfall. Well, I am sorry, but I dispute the figures. Most people want to go to their local branch. Most people cannot deal with apps or new technology—some people are dinosaurs.

RBS should be a bank that cares. I say to RBS that it should look out, because it has gone a step too far. Bellshill previously had four banks on its main street but the proposed closure will leave us with only one.

Again, I thank Kate Forbes for bringing the matter to the chamber.

12:53  

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The people own a controlling majority stake in RBS. If RBS bosses will not listen to reason and pull back from these closures, and if the Tory chancellor, Philip Hammond, will not intervene to stop it doing what it is doing, we must mobilise the people.

On 8 December, I wrote to the chancellor, requesting that he step in and call a halt to this social and economic vandalism. Earlier this week, I held discussions with the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and we discussed the red book from last month’s autumn budget statement, which made grim reading. Growth figures were significantly revised down. Worse, I can reveal that hidden away in the public finance section of the red book is the news that the Tory chancellor now has his sights set on a sell-off of RBS. Following the downgrading of the economic growth forecasts, Philip Hammond proposes to fix public sector net borrowing by selling off RBS at a bargain-basement price.

This afternoon, I call on the Scottish Government and the Scottish Conservatives to stand up for Scotland and to call on Philip Hammond not to sell off RBS and to veto the closure of these bank branches across Scotland. We should step up the campaign because, in the end, if we, the people, own RBS, we ought to control it.

12:54  

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I congratulate Kate Forbes on securing the debate. This latest round of RBS closures is not just a blow to North Ayrshire’s people, businesses and communities, but rather the latest insult demonstrating the sheer contempt that RBS has for its customers and branch staff.

Kilbirnie and Saltcoats will join already closed Dalry and West Kilbride branches, leaving Brodick and Largs as the only RBS branches in my constituency. It seems that RBS had no intention of fulfilling its much trumpeted promise not to close the last remaining bank in our community, and I am annoyed that loyal customers were used as a prop in what appears to have been an elaborate public relations stunt.

Closure of 62 Scottish branch buildings will raise just £8.7 million, according to the Sunday Mail—if they are sold at all. As we know, empty bank buildings litter many of our high streets, and even if that sum is realised, it will still be much less than the eye-watering £16 million bonuses paid to RBS executives this year or the £11 million sponsorship of Scottish rugby by RBS.

That would be shocking enough from any high street bank, but it is even more galling from RBS, which is 72.9 per cent owned by the United Kingdom taxpayer. Understandably, people are looking for answers and recognition of their investment.

This decision was provoked by the promotion of mobile and online banking, but it is incredibly short-sighted to assume that those things meet the needs of all customers. When challenged, RBS points to its mobile branches as the final word in rural and semi-rural banking, yet across Ayrshire, many people complain about the inaccessibility of mobile banks, which require customers to climb four high steps. It is appalling that wheelchair users are expected to conduct their business outside the van in all weathers, and that RBS refuses to even meet or engage with campaigners.

RBS says that this decision is final, and that more closures and job cuts could be on the way. That is totally unacceptable. On behalf of constituents, I urge the Westminster Government to exercise its majority shareholding to force RBS to engage with staff and local communities. No one should be left behind because of RBS’s appalling actions.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

If members go over time, it may disadvantage other people.

12:56  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I thank Kate Forbes for galvanising Parliament today.

Nine of the bank closures will take place in my region. Branches in Aberfeldy, Alloa, Bannockburn, Bridge of Allan, Comrie, Dunblane, Kinross, Perth and Pitlochry are all scheduled to shut. The Courier newspaper has highlighted that this is the latest in a long line of closures to hit communities, with RBS branches in Lochgelly and Dalgety Bay shutting earlier this year. In Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, my Green colleague Councillor Tollemache has been working with both community councils, and public meetings have been arranged for the new year in the hope of retaining at least some services.

RBS stated that it would never close the last bank in town. It is clear that that is exactly what it is doing and no amount of couthy marketing campaigns proclaiming

“We are with you every day”

will change the fact that it is abandoning communities to a computer server in Gogarburn.

RBS says that services can be accessed at post offices, but those are also becoming scarce, with more than a quarter having closed since 2002. A weekly mobile banking service does not offer security for cash-based businesses that are required to make daily deposits, so there could be serious insurance implications for those businesses—that is a point that I would like the minister to reflect on in closing.

It is time for the UK Government to use its decisive share in RBS to deliver a network that is fit for Scotland’s communities and people in the 21st century.

12:58  

Mairi Gougeon (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

My sincere thanks to Kate Forbes for bringing forward the debate and allowing all members to vent their frustrations at what is yet another disgraceful set of closures by a bank that will hit all our constituencies and the communities within them hard.

I was angry and appalled to hear the news two weeks ago that RBS was set to close a branch in Montrose in my constituency, as were many other members. It is one closure, but it comes straight on the back of three RBS closures over the past two years—across Brechin, Stonehaven and Laurencekirk—and fresh on the back of Clydesdale Bank closures that saw three out of the four in my constituency close, affecting Brechin, Stonehaven and Forfar.

I have been inundated by angry and seriously concerned constituents: those who work with people with learning disabilities, those who work with the elderly, elderly people themselves and people who are dependent on public transport. Those people who were affected by the last round of closures were directed from all parts of the north-east of Scotland to the Montrose branch, which is now set to close.

RBS expects people to use the post office—which would put more pressure on post offices, as they are being expected to pick up the RBS slack on top of the slack of the other banks that have abandoned their communities—or mobile banks, which have a severe lack of accessibility for those with mobility problems, lack of access to the full range of services and only a limited time in each location that is served.

All of that is happening at a time when RBS is expected to shell out millions upon millions in bonuses. Well, enough is enough. We, the people in here and out there, own more than 70 per cent of the bank. RBS therefore has a duty to work in the public interest, and we demand that it does so by reversing the decision and keeping the branches open.

13:00  

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

I live 7 miles north of the village of Alford in rural Aberdeenshire and used the RBS branch there. When the bank announced the closure of the branch in September 2015, it recommended that I move my business to its branch in Westhill, some 19 miles away—it is, in fact, 26 miles from my home. I declined to do that, but I know that many of the Alford RBS customers did, and the nearest other RBS branch was in Huntly, 21 miles north of Alford. Then, last October, RBS announced that it was closing its Westhill branch—the one that customers had just been advised to move all their accounts to. Never mind. The Huntly branch was staying open, just 21 miles north of Alford. Would you believe it, Presiding Officer? In its latest round of branch closures, RBS has decided, in its wisdom, to close the Huntly branch too.

RBS has taken decisions on branch closures in isolation. It is a business, after all, and it is in the business of making a profit. However, I simply ask RBS—and indeed the other banks—to think outside the box. Solutions are what we need. They could still make a profit and provide a service to our rural communities by working together. Would that not be novel? Banks could even work with their competitors in a community hub, offering facilities that local people could access with greater ease. If the banks continue to work in silos, we could see them all withdraw their services from our towns and villages, and that way lies disaster.

I ask the minister to knock the banks’ heads together so that they can co-operate to save the services and keep a profit for themselves. That would be a win-win situation.

13:01  

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

I congratulate my friend and colleague Kate Forbes on securing today’s debate. Time is limited, so I will focus on the closure of the RBS branch in Leven. I could talk about 2014—and no, I do not mean that. I mean the closure of branches in Markinch, Lundin Links and Thornton, each with populations of roughly 2,000 whom RBS left behind. Let us not kid ourselves. RBS has been closing branches in swathes for years, but it sticks in the craw somewhat in 2017, the year in which the bank recorded a profit of £871 million in the third quarter. Merry Christmas to the shareholders.

In my constituency, the Leven branch shut its doors on 3 October. There was no consultation. I found out about it, and about the replacement mobile banking service, via email. The bank now visits Leven three times a week, but the sum total of opening hours is just a shocking four and a half hours. All time slots fall within the hours of a normal working day; two fall across the morning period and one is over lunch. In addition, as has been said by my friend Mairi Gougeon, those mobile banks are not accessible.

I do not think that it is coincidental that, within weeks of RBS announcing that it was shutting shop and the Clydesdale Bank doing likewise, WH Smith shut too. However, Leven High Street is just a mirror image of every other town across Scotland, as we have heard today. Once the banks go, the shops close, and then what? RBS claims that it had to shut the Leven branch because of footfall, but it could not give my office the figures for the months before it closed.

My constituents are being let down by a bank that they own and that the UK Government has washed its hands of. It is not good enough. I stand with colleagues across the chamber today in demanding a Royal Bank for Scotland not for its shareholders.

13:03  

Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

I thank Kate Forbes for bringing the motion to Parliament. The news that RBS has decided to shut 62 branches is devastating. As Kate Forbes highlighted, rural areas will be hit the hardest. The Scottish Borders will see significant detrimental impact. It is disappointing that those in rural areas have seemingly been forgotten in the decision. Banks have a moral obligation to ensure continued access to services, especially for older or vulnerable residents. Clearly, RBS is not living up to that obligation.

The Borders is up in arms. Only three years ago, the bank shut its branches in Chirnside, Greenlaw and Newtown St Boswells. Closures forecast for Selkirk, Duns, Eyemouth, Hawick, Jedburgh and Melrose will cause further disruption and woe. Those who cannot, or would prefer not to, bank digitally now have to find another way to get to the bank—once on their doorstep, now miles away. In the Borders, where broadband is slow, digital banking is not as easy as some would suggest, and not everyone can drive. That is why many people retire to towns, in order to access services easily.

Previous closures in the Borders have already impacted footfall on the high streets. Constituents in Hawick now face a 40-mile round trip to their nearest bank. Furthermore, the post office or mobile bank is no substitute for a bank teller. Traders are now expected to shut shop to get to their bank, damaging their business productivity and shortening opening hours.

On small business Saturday, I spoke to traders and shoppers on the high street in Jedburgh, who told me how shocked they were by the news that RBS was shutting. A constituent in Coldstream pleaded with me last week to contact their ATM provider, as one was out of order and the other had not been topped up with cash. That is what we are now facing. I really hope that RBS will reconsider the closures.

13:05  

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Kate Forbes for her motion. Nearly a quarter of the latest RBS closures come in South Scotland. Communities in Annan, Gretna, Langholm and Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, Biggar, Carnwath and Douglas in South Lanarkshire, Dunbar and North Berwick in East Lothian, Duns, Eyemouth, Hawick, Jedburgh and Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, and Penicuik in Midlothian will all see their branches axed by RBS. It is less than a year since the closure of branches in Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway, as well as Cumnock, Mauchline, Prestwick, Troon and Girvan in Ayrshire. Across South Scotland, our towns and villages are being left without a single bank branch, despite a previous commitment by RBS not to close a branch if it is the last bank in town.

Of course, misleading the public is what RBS does. Recently, RBS business customers in Langholm received a letter from their bank that appeared to hint at the closure of their local branch. When challenged on that issue, RBS denied that it would happen and yet, weeks later, closure is exactly what it has announced. RBS says that it will try to avoid compulsory redundancies during the latest closures, but the scale of the closures is such that loyal and hard-working staff are being left with no reasonable relocation options.

Despite the 165 jobs that are on the line in the UK Government-owned RBS, how did the Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, initially respond to the news? He got his photo taken outside RBS in Biggar. Staff and customers do not need sympathetic words and photo calls; they need direct intervention by the UK Government to stop the closures now. We need legislation from the UK Government to ensure that, where a bank is the last in town, there can be no closure without full consultation with customers and the final decision is made not by the bank but by the Financial Conduct Authority.

13:07  

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests. I remind banks that they do not stand apart from wider society—they exist to serve it, and they depend on its support for their continued existence and their special privileges.

The Bank of Scotland opened its doors in 1695 and drew opprobrium in 1715 when its board backed a Jacobite rebellion. That led to the foundation of the Hanoverian Royal Bank of Scotland and nearly closed the Bank of Scotland. Today, with RBS and others removing branch-based services from communities across Scotland, particularly in Banff in my constituency, there is a significant risk to some banks’ future success.

Banks should set aside short-term financial targets to ensure their long-term survival. They can do so by re-earning the trust and support of local people by being part of communities through having a meaningful physical presence in them. In 1826, the Bank of Scotland manager in Kirkcaldy angered his customer, David Landale, was challenged to a duel, accepted the challenge and lost. The bank lost a manager and could not even take possession of the gun that killed him. Fall out with your customers at your peril! Today’s gun levelled at the banks may merely be metaphorical, but it could be just as deadly.

13:08  

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank Kate Forbes for bringing the debate to the chamber.

As has been highlighted already, the bank closures will have a hugely detrimental effect on communities across the country, especially in the more rural towns in my area, such as Cumnock, Mauchline and Girvan. Moreover, they will disproportionately affect those who are most vulnerable, including the elderly. In Girvan, for instance, I heard from Age Concern Scotland that people will have to travel to either Ayr or Stranraer, often by public transport, which takes hours.

While we rightly call out the banks and lobby against the closures, I suggest that it is also important that we engage with the banks to try to develop solutions on the ground in the communities that are affected. For example, in Girvan, when Age Concern highlighted its concern about the use of technology, I contacted RBS and it sent somebody along to give a workshop with Age Concern to try to address those concerns, which it continues to do.

In addition, the route that the mobile banks take and their accessibility are under review in my area, following feedback from constituents that was passed on to the bank.

It is absolutely right that we exert as much pressure as we can in relation to the closures, but I encourage members to engage with the banks to look at practical solutions that would mitigate the worst of the cuts while continuing to bring the utmost pressure to bear.

13:10  

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Today, the widespread bank closures face a lot of criticism. In my region, the recent announcement of further RBS closures will rip local banking out of the heart of communities. Villages and towns such as Comrie, Kinross and Alloa will now join Cowdenbeath, Burntisland and Leven in having their branches closed and access to banking services restricted. Across all banks, 26 branches have closed in my region this year alone.

The banks argue that, as more people use online banking services, the branches are no longer viable, but many people—including the elderly and the technology poor—rely on them. Even those who are online face significant digital access challenges because of poor broadband connection speeds. Aberfeldy, Comrie, Kinross and Pitlochry are in the bottom 20 per cent in the UK for download speeds.

In addition, it is assumed that people who use online banking no longer need a convenient branch, which is just not true. People still need to deposit cash, particularly those who run small businesses. This week, I spoke to a local solicitor who is under time pressure to deposit cheques. It will be extremely difficult for him to deposit cheques in the required timeframe, because there are only four branches of his bank left in the whole of Fife.

People want to discuss their financial arrangements, whether they involve loans, mortgages or savings, and to have decisions made locally. We need to find a solution that ensures access to essential banking services. We cannot allow banking services across the country to be decimated. There must be alternatives to the direction that is being taken. Widespread bank closures only risk customer dissatisfaction and put unreasonable strain on bank employees. RBS and other high street banks need to recognise the strength of public feeling and rethink the closures.

13:12  

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

As others have done, I thank Kate Forbes.

I echo what other members have said in stating how disappointed I am that RBS has taken the decision to close 62 branches across Scotland. I am grateful that the Coatbridge branch is not one of them, as I do not think that the high street in Coatbridge could take any more pain. There have been several high street bank closures in Coatbridge already, and the Department for Work and Pensions is ruthlessly moving hundreds of staff out of its town centre operation. Those factors, among others, led me to pull together a stakeholders group to work with the council and local business owners to try desperately to save our town centre. I thank the minister for the answers that he gave yesterday.

I want to focus on the branch that is closing in my constituency—the Stepps branch. It is literally the last bank in town, and it not just for Stepps. Residents who use the Stepps branch will need to travel more than 3 miles to Kirkintilloch to get to their closest high street branch. Users of the Stepps branch come from not just Stepps but the surrounding villages of Chryston, Moodiesburn and Auchinloch. For the elderly, disabled, people without their own transport and those in poverty, getting to an alternative branch will be a significant added challenge, so I urge RBS to consider all its customers’ needs before taking the proposed action.

Those very people are the ones who are most unlikely to know that their branch is closing. For example, on the day that the announcement was made, I went over to show my support for the staff. A queue of mainly elderly customers was forming, and I overheard one of them say, “Have you heard that the branch in Airdrie is closing?” They were oblivious to the fact that their branch was to close. I am sure that Alex Neil will pick that up in his speech. The proposed closure of the Stepps branch has gone under the radar in Stepps, which is why I have taken every opportunity to raise it.

13:13  

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

It gives me no pleasure to speak in this very important debate. What I have to say echoes much of what has been said by others across the chamber.

I have raised the issue of the bank branch closures in Juniper Green and Balerno in my region a number of times in Parliament. Yet again, it appears that elderly and disabled customers and others have been forgotten in the latest round of planned RBS closures. Banks appear to assume that their preferred option for banking—online platforms—will solve the problem of access to banking for everyone, but that is not the case.

This week, an elderly resident told me how upset she was about the proposed closure of the RBS branch in Linlithgow. “At least there’s still the Bank of Scotland that I can go to,” she said in a resigned fashion. There is at least one bank left—for now. Within the week, Santander also announced the closure of its Linlithgow branch, leaving it and RBS with only two branches each in the whole of West Lothian. The Clydesdale Bank Linlithgow branch that I used as a customer closed several years ago.

I have sat with bank representatives discussing spreadsheets on branch usage, and reams of statistics showing how many or how few people use or do not use whichever particular branch is set to close at that point in time. What they completely missed was any attempt to provide an alternative plan for the way forward, whether on their own or in conjunction with other banks.

Many points could be made and, in closing, I echo what Mike Rumbles said. Banks are not in the same position as ordinary private companies, least of all RBS. They are underwritten by the taxpayers who guarantee the deposits in their accounts. What is their plan for future provision of services to those people?

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I really have to stop you there, Mr Lindhurst.

13:15  

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I congratulate Kate Forbes on securing the debate.

These closures will have a devastating impact on all of Scotland but especially on the Highlands and Islands, where 13 branches will close. The justification for the closures is cynical. We have the worst broadband in Scotland—indeed in the UK—and therefore the ability to bank online is a distant dream rather than a reality.

Possibly the worst of the proposals is the closure of the branch in Castlebay. It means that people will have more than 20 miles to drive and a ferry to catch just to get to the bank, and then they need to try to get back home again. That will probably mean that it will take the best part of a day to access the bank, not to mention the added costs. Added to that, it is a place where my constituents have had some of the worst problems with accessing broadband. What of elderly people who cannot make the ferry journey to get their pension?

While we rightly concentrate on service provision, we must not forget the staff who work at the branches. They are losing their jobs, because the distance that they would have to travel to an alternative branch will make relocation impossible. Neither do they have a hope of gaining a similar job, because such jobs are few and far between in rural communities.

The closures are being directed by the banks that we bailed out. The people who are making the decisions owe their own jobs to the communities that they are now riding roughshod over. It has to stop. The Westminster Government must intervene on behalf of us, the shareholders. These banks belong to the people and they must make the people their priority.

13:17  

Gillian Martin (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)

In my constituency, RBS has announced plans to close branches in the towns of Ellon and Turriff, which is incredibly disappointing for local residents and businesses who will now have to travel further to do their banking.

Such closures affect elderly people most, but this morning I was contacted by 20-year-old Hannah Mackie—a student nurse and Turriff brownies leader who put the travel issue into context. She works 12-hour shifts and, on her days off, she does the banking for the brownie pack—mainly cheques and cash. If RBS closes, she will have to travel 16 miles to Maud. The only bus would get her there 15 minutes before the branch closes, and there is not another bus to take her back home for more than three hours. She is not hopeful that a visiting mobile van will be of any use to her, given her shift pattern.

Earlier this week I met representatives from the Turriff Business Association, which is made up of about 60 businesses from across all sectors. It has started a petition calling for the decision by RBS to be reversed. I have signed the petition and fully support the association, and I urge people in Turriff to give it their support—although I am cynical about whether it will be effective. I was in Mintlaw earlier this year with Councillor Jim Ingram, trying to get the Clydesdale Bank—the only bank in town—to reverse its decision to close its branch. We were unsuccessful and were able only to save an ATM.

The public bailed out RBS in the banking crisis, so it has a duty to support residents who benefit from a local service.

I urge the UK Government not to turn a blind eye and dismiss this as a commercial decision, as the MP for Gordon, Colin Clark, did when he replied to me about the Ellon RBS closure. It is always rural towns that suffer most when such decisions are made.

13:19  

Maurice Corry (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank Kate Forbes for bringing this important issue to members’ business today. Banks provide a vital service in our communities—most notably in the smaller towns and villages. The demographic of an area has a large part to play in whether local bank branches should be retained, with more elderly people and small businesses needing access to branches in rural areas and towns. People who visit branches do so regularly and need them for specific requirements.

Relatively recently, there have been a number of closures of various banks. In my region, those have included Clydesdale Bank branches in Bearsden and Helensburgh, Barclays in Dumbarton and the RBS in Alexandria. If residents cannot perform branch banking, it is a notable and avoidable inconvenience that potentially creates a dangerous or harmful situation for elderly and vulnerable people in our society, by endangering community safety: with bank branches continuing to close, people are forced to withdraw cash in a less secure environment.

I realise that internet banking is becoming much more popular, but many people—in fact, as many as 50 per cent—still do not use it. Branches form a very important part of our communities. I implore RBS’s directors to give the issue extremely serious consideration.

13:20  

Tom Arthur (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)

I, too, thank Kate Forbes for securing the debate.

We have heard much talk about the last bank in town, but in Renfrewshire South we are down to the last bank in the constituency. We lost the RBS in Lochwinnoch in 2014 and we lost the RBS in Barrhead last year. To add to that, we lost the Clydesdale Bank in Johnstone, so we now have one RBS serving the whole Renfrewshire South constituency.

This is not the first time that a member of the Scottish Parliament for Renfrewshire South has raised the issue. Three years ago, my predecessor, Hugh Henry, in a members’ business debate that had been secured by Neil Findlay, raised the very same issue. It was telling that Hugh opened his speech by quoting Ross McEwan, the chief executive of RBS, who said:

“We need to remember—and then never forget—that the customer is why we are in business.”

Mr McEwan, who the Financial Times reports received a payment of $7 million last week, is certainly in business.

There has been a great deal of talk from RBS about people moving to alternative platforms for banking, including mobile, digital and online banking, and the bank points to decreased footfall in branches. That is all very well, but who are the people who still use their local banks? That has not been captured. The policy and the decision seem to be predicated on the dead-eyed dogma of bean counters, with absolutely no cognisance whatever being taken of the needs of society. It is the wrong move. As Stewart Stevenson eloquently highlighted, banks have social responsibility: it is time that taxpayer-owned RBS remembered that.

13:22  

Iain Gray (East Lothian) (Lab)

I, too, thank Kate Forbes for securing the debate. I want to use it to add to the record my comments on the closure of RBS branches in Dunbar and North Berwick in my constituency, and to register the anger of my constituents in those towns about the bank—to which many have shown loyalty over many years and even decades—treating them so shabbily.

This is not the first time it has happened. Just over a year ago, RBS closed its branch in Prestonpans, leaving that town with no bank branch, and the Bank of Scotland has done the same to Gullane. The branches that are to be closed are busy. Only a few days ago, I was told of queues out the door in North Berwick. That was true of Prestonpans a year ago, but still the branch was closed. My constituents’ experience of those branches jars with the picture that RBS paints of deserted facilities that are shunned by switched-on online customers.

What also jars is the bank’s public relations and advertising image of a bank that serves customers in communities while it actually deserts many of them and responds to their protests with contempt.

However, what jars most of all is that the banks looked to the public to save them when their own greed almost consumed them, and now they treat us with contempt. The closures are nothing new, but they should be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This time, we must find a way to stop them.

13:23  

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

I thank Kate Forbes and say “Well done” to her for bringing the debate before us.

The closure of RBS Bannockburn will create real challenges for that community—especially for elderly people. The branch covers Bannockburn, Hillpark, Plean, Cowie, Throsk and Fallin. It does not have to be this way. Yesterday, during Prime Minister’s question time, Theresa May brushed off calls to intervene in RBS closures and referred to them as “commercial decisions”. The UK Government owns 73 per cent of RBS and the Treasury has over 70 per cent voting rights. The influence exists and our communities need the UK Government to use it.

RBS customers are among the taxpayers who bailed out the bank with billions of pounds. They helped to save it, so is this how they are to be treated? I say to the Tory Government that it is not simply a commercial decision; it is a social travesty. The Tory Government has the power to take action. The bank was saved by taking money from the pockets of ordinary people, so the UK Government owes those people a debt. It is time to start paying it back and to stop the closures now.

13:24  

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I have been on RBS’s case for a long time. Now we have just two branches left in West Lothian and one in Midlothian, and several branches in Edinburgh have closed, leaving vacant buildings on high streets.

I have asked for meetings with the very well remunerated Ross McEwan. He has refused. I have asked the bank to stop closures. It has refused. I have asked the bank to hand over buildings to the community and to set up a legacy fund. It has refused. Let me tell members why the latter two requests were refused. RBS said—members should listen to this—

“We have to secure the best return for shareholders”.

This is the bank that was fined £3.1 billion for mortgage mis-selling, £14.5 million for having poor mortgage records, £5.6 million for reporting failures, £56 million for computer failures, £5.6 million for failure to screen customers, and £2.8 million for failing to handle complaints properly. This is the bank that had to put aside £391 million for London interbank offered rate—LIBOR—rigging, £1.3 billion to deal with payments for businesses that were mis-sold products, and £3.25 billion for payment protection insurance mis-selling. I have to ask Mr McEwan: how is that value for shareholders?

Let us not take any of RBS’s garbage about value for money for shareholders. It could hand every single building over to the community and give each community £100,000, £200,000 or £1 million, and that would still not reach the value of the fines that it has had to pay out on our behalf, as the shareholders. RBS is a disgrace.

Every member should ask Mr McEwan for a meeting. He does not want to get out of his bunker.

13:26  

Alex Neil (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

I congratulate Kate Forbes on securing the debate and on her excellent speech.

It is very obvious already that, despite all our protestations, RBS has no intention of changing its mind on any proposed closure. That is a totally outrageous situation.

We have all sought meetings with Ross McEwan and other senior people in the bank. I have a suggestion to make. All the members who have taken part in the debate should seek a joint meeting with Ross McEwan, along with colleagues who want to join us, and let him say no to the Scottish Parliament as a corporate body, rather than picking off individual members.

It is high time that banks and big corporations accepted that they have a social responsibility. Corporations that are in the public sector have a special responsibility to communities and to their shareholders.

In my constituency, RBS shut its Shotts branch last year. The building is still sitting empty and RBS has refused to hand it over to the community. Now RBS is going to close the Airdrie branch. The bank does not care about those communities. Despite all the adverts and all the propaganda, it is doing nothing for us. Let us get together, cross-party and across the Parliament, as one delegation, and demand a meeting with McEwan.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

To allow the minister to respond to the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice under rule 8.14.3 to extend the debate by a short time.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Kate Forbes]

Motion agreed to.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I am sure that the minister is quite relieved at that.

13:28  

The Minister for Business, Innovation and Energy (Paul Wheelhouse)

I declare an interest as a customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland and a user of one of the branches that are being closed.

I thank Kate Forbes for lodging today’s motion. I greatly appreciate that Ms Forbes and many other members have genuine and sincerely felt concerns—as was demonstrated in the debate—about the Royal Bank of Scotland’s announcement that 62 branches are to close, not only in Ms Forbes’s constituency but across the whole of Scotland. In my patch, six of the eight branches in the Scottish Borders are to close, as Rachael Hamilton said.

Kate Forbes is correct to identify that the UK Government retains legislative and regulatory responsibility for banking and financial services and is the majority shareholder in RBS—Kenny Gibson also made that point strongly, as did Alex Neil in his powerful speech.

However, the Scottish Government stands ready to work with UK ministers, the bank and other stakeholders to support and reassure customers in light of the planned closures. That is not to say that we are happy with the closures. My first preference—the Government’s first preference—is for the branches to stay open. I very much hear the comments that have been made today.

Concerns have been raised about the impact of branch closures on our communities. These closures will be a body blow to many communities across Scotland, leaving many areas with significantly reduced branch coverage and availability of banking services.

Mike Rumbles

I have a genuine question. Will the minister get together with all the banks that serve us in Scotland to get their heads together? Decisions are being taken by each bank in isolation, but they need to work together.

Paul Wheelhouse

I planned to address that issue later, but I will take it head on now, because Mr Rumbles has fairly raised it. I reassure Mr Rumbles and all members in the chamber—indeed, Mr Whittle made a similar point about trying to find practical solutions—that we are engaging with RBS; we are not just accepting that the bank will pull out and leave nothing behind. We are trying to liaise with the bank about what it can provide as a legacy and, if branches are to close—I repeat that I would rather that they did not close—about what practical solution can be found. Mr Rumbles made a point about having a community hub. We have already raised that with RBS in discussing how to use the estate.

Neil Findlay

Will the minister help members by agreeing that no minister or member will facilitate any corporate functions in this building for RBS until it comes to the table and has discussions with members about what it is up to?

Paul Wheelhouse

I hear the point that Mr Findlay makes and I am aware of his long-standing interest in the issue. I do not govern what happens in the Scottish Parliament—I am sure that the Presiding Officer would be the first to say that—but I take Mr Findlay’s point entirely. We are trying to make the point to RBS that there is a reputational issue. Its reputation is clearly suffering in the court of public opinion and in the court of this chamber’s opinion. I am sure that the strength of feeling that we have heard today is not lost on it.

In our view, the UK Government should not be a passive bystander. We believe that it should take immediate action to defend customers and ensure that communities, particularly the most vulnerable members of those communities—Mairi Gougeon made a powerful point about people with learning disabilities—are protected and have access to day-to-day banking services.

Of course we understand that many customers now choose to access banks and banking services in different ways, but, as many members said, that is not true of all customers. There are many customers for whom it is quite frightening to go online, because they hear stories of online fraud and other issues and they need reassurance. We know that services do not yet meet the needs of all customers and that, for some time to come, banks must continue to offer services to all customers in a way that meets their needs. There are often sensitive issues that need to be discussed with a bank, such as issues around bereavement, redundancy and other matters. A customer would not want to stand in a post office talking over the counter about something sensitive while someone behind them was waiting to buy stamps. Face-to-face contact in a private space is still a core part of what banking services need to provide.

Last week I spoke to Stephen Barclay, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, to press the case for a guaranteed level of access to essential banking services. We recognise that commercial decisions have to be taken, but, where regulation is in place, that creates a level playing field and provides the context in which those commercial decisions are made. We believe that there is a role for regulation to ensure that a minimum standard of banking services is left when banks close branches.

The UK Government has made it clear that, despite its having a majority stake in RBS, it will unfortunately not exercise its influence at this time. It might need to be pressurised to do more on that front, but I recognise the support of the Conservative members in the chamber for taking action on this. I appreciate that RBS operates on a commercial basis, and that it must do so, but we believe that there is a role for regulation.

We believe that the UK Government should work to ensure that robust alternative options are in place before it allows closures to take place. We are prepared to play our part in that; we do not expect it to fall entirely to others.

I acknowledge the work that the banks are doing with the Post Office to expand the services that are available to their customers through that network. However, as a number of members said, although the Post Office is able to offer a basic banking service, businesses in particular have concerns about cash deposits. A current barrier is that most post offices can accept only up to £2,000 in cash being deposited at any one time. That is a real barrier for tourism businesses located in rural areas such as Kate Forbes’s constituency; they will face real challenges as the majority of their trade is conducted in cash.

I spoke to senior RBS staff on Friday 1 December immediately following the bank’s announcement and I spoke yesterday to Simon Watson, the head of retail banking, when I asked the bank to consider further the support that it provides to customers affected by these closures. I welcome the commitment to provide training and support to customers in setting up and using digital services—there is more that I can say on that, but I am not yet at liberty to do so. However, in some areas there will continue to be challenges around digital access, which a number of members mentioned. I have urged RBS to take that into account, because I do not believe that it has been taken into account sufficiently to date—I refer not least to the difficulties in accessing a reliable wi-fi or 4G service in large parts of both rural and urban Scotland.

RBS maintains that it has made changes to its mobile banking fleet to allow it to serve a greater range of locations. Jenny Gilruth and others raised legitimate concerns about the availability of mobile banking services at a time that is convenient for customers. We urge RBS to take those concerns on board. I agree very much with the points that members made about that issue today.

As I said to Mike Rumbles, I have asked the bank to give further thought to the future of the branches that are to close. We believe that there is room for collaboration between RBS and other banks, independent financial advisers, tax advisers and others to potentially provide a hub that could represent a step-change in the availability of financial advice to members of the community. There could be a good opportunity coming out of this.

I do not want to finish the debate without saying something about the staff. As a number of members said, the planned closures affect the bank’s customers but also its staff. I had a very constructive meeting this week with representatives of Unite to discuss the impact of these closures on its members. I agree whole-heartedly with Kate Forbes’s praise of the staff and how they are handling the situation and supporting customers at a difficult time.

The bank has indicated that up to 160 jobs are at risk as a result of the announcements, but that is the figure for full-time equivalents. Given the nature of part-time employment in the banks, Unite estimates that up to 350 people could be affected by the redundancy programme and the potential voluntary redundancy options. As Rhoda Grant said, there are practical difficulties for staff in remote and rural locations, because they will have no alternative RBS site that it is practical for them to access, given their caring responsibilities or geographical barriers.

Unite has made it clear that it is concerned about the impact of the closures on communities. We will work closely with the unions on that.

As members have done, I urge RBS to listen to and reflect on what has been said today and work with us where it can to try to provide a long-term solution for the communities affected by the closure of the last branch in town. I put on record our appetite to do that and to help the communities and the staff affected, and indeed to help RBS come out of this with a better reputation than it risks having at this moment in time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

That concludes the debate. I ask members to clear the chamber quickly to allow it to be prepared for this afternoon’s business.

13:37 Meeting suspended.  14:00 On resuming—