With the UK Post Office poised to cut one third of its cash machines by March 2022, consumer group Which? has raised concerns that there are already vulnerable people unable to buy essentials because shops are only accepting card payments.
The Post Office does not operate the ATMs in its branches. They are, in fact, run by the Bank of Ireland, which is now pulling out of the business. This has obliged the Post Office to conduct a review that will see 600 ATMs closed, and the remainder upgraded to new machines. The reduction risks leaving rural and deprived areas without access to cash.
This resonates with the recent Times article on research showing people in affluent market towns are moving away from cash far more readily than those in poorer areas. It found stark differences across the UK, with the wealthiest towns going cashless while deprived areas and the elderly remained dependent on notes and coins.
There are places… where more people rely on cash. They’re often some of the most deprived places in the country. That’s important, because while there are more people who prefer to use cards and shop online, there are a lot of people out there where digital payments still don’t work.
A more immediate problem is shops refusing payments in cash due to social distancing concerns. While scientific evidence does not back the stigmatisation of cash, and the UK Treasury is trying to increase access to it with plans for purchase-free cashback schemes, progress is not happening fast enough to protect vulnerable members of society.
Thomas Scobie of Stirling in Scotland spoke to the BBC about his experience of being on universal credit and finding local shops were abruptly only accepting card payments. This left him unable to buy essentials such as food from the usual places, and with a chronic health condition and mental health disorder, he found the process of identifying shops that would accept cash ‘a real struggle, and depressing.’ Being on a fixed income, he is worried that getting a card would be too much of a risk. If he lost any money through fraud—such as scams or card cloning—he ‘simply couldn’t survive.’
Which? is asking businesses to show greater understanding and flexibility to support customers for whom cash may be their only payment option.
The rapid move towards a cashless society risks excluding the most vulnerable from being able to pay for vital products and services. We’re alarmed at the reports of people leaving food and medicine behind because they can’t pay with cash.
40 percent of people surveyed by Which? reported being unable to pay with cash and said they did not have access to another payment method. Some said they had been able to go to another shop, where cash was accepted, but over 30 percent said they had been unable to buy items or services at all.
Respondent Andy Fisher of Beverley in England said he had been told by a shop assistant that cash was ‘a thing of the past’, leaving him feeling uncomfortable and patronised.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, observed that many elderly people depend on cash, and that it was ‘really disappointing’ that when they do venture out—in an increasingly risky environment—they may not be able to pay for essentials.
It remains true that a reduction in cash use in society disproportionately negatively impacts its most vulnerable segments, such as older people and those with very low incomes who use cash to manage their budgets.
Which? supports Government plans to draw up legislation that will protect cash, and the appointment of the Financial Conduct Authority to oversee it, calling for the regulator to track levels of cash acceptance and ultimately safeguard access to cash.