Campaigners have noted refusal of cash has ‘crept into the UK economy’ and warn this will make life unnecessarily challenging for the millions who depend upon it. As ATM withdrawals rise again with lockdown easing, the debate around cash’s role in the future is at a critical stage.
Over the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, withdrawals fell by £37 billion, or around 43 percent compared with the previous 12 months, according to Link, the company that runs Britain’s network of cash machines. This reduced demand led to 4,000 fewer free-to-use machines operating across the country in 2021.
On the other hand, the amount withdrawn per cash machine visit actually increased during this period, from an average of £67 (€78/$94) to £84 (€97/$118). Recently, there has also been a rise in ATM use, most strongly driven by the reopening of hospitality venues such as pubs, which are traditionally more cash-reliant businesses.
Which?—a UK consumer rights organisation—conducted a survey that found, since March 2020, one third of people had been refused the option to pay cash when trying to buy something. Grocery shops, pubs and restaurants were the most likely to restrict payment choice. Jenny Ross, Which? Money Editor, says ‘nowhere near enough action has been taken by the Government or the regulator’ to address the erosion of cash acceptance.
Natalie Ceeney, who chaired an independent review of access to cash across the UK, is also calling on the Government to make good on its promise to shore up cash infrastructure. The European Central Bank has since published a strategy to safeguard the future of cash and ensure its availability of all EU citizens, while the UK Government has yet to take action.
We can’t just blame individual businesses—many are going cashless because they can’t easily bank cash takings… The Government needs to urgently legislate to protect the viability of cash—as it promised to do last year. Time is running out.”
Ultimately, Ceeney says much will depend upon how rapidly and completely people return to using physical money, particularly in typically high-cash places such as pubs and hairdressers.
Alongside a gradual reopening of the economy, Community Access to Cash schemes have also got under way across Britain, exploring new ways to serve underbanked communities and put payment choice back into local hands, boosting local economies. With their success being tracked via regular surveys, a report chaired by Natalie Ceeney will give results and recommendations for subsequent action in the second half of 2021.
It is crucial to understand cash remains vital for millions of people… [It] allows you to budget to the last penny… Shops going cashless may be seen as progress to some, but there are a lot of people out there where it makes life more difficult, expensive and uncertain.
In the meantime, for those passionate about cash, the Freedom to Pay, Our Way campaign organised by Which? offers information on how to request an ATM installation, report incidents of shops refusing cash, and a petition for Brits to safeguard cash. The website is campaigns.which.co.uk/freedom-to-pay.