BRITAIN is “sleepwalking” into a cash-free society it is ill prepared for and millions of people will be left disadvantaged as a result, a major financial industry figure has warned .

Ex-financial ombudsman Natalie Ceeney says that a “political hiatus” means there has been a “deafening silence” in terms of tangible action to prevent people being left behind.

Ms Ceeney, who met MSPs in Edinburgh on Wednesday to discuss the issues, hopes the Scottish Government can now put pressure on Westminster to end the inertia.

HeraldScotland:

Ten years ago, cash accounted for more than six out of 10 payments in the UK but, according to the banking industry body UK Finance, it is anticipated to fall to fewer than one in 10 by 2028. In 2017, debit cards overtook cash for the first time as the most frequently used payment method in the UK

Meanwhile, people’s access to cash through ATMs is being restricted. In Scotland cash machines were disappearing at a rate of 32 a month in the 11 months to April. There are 6008 cashpoints in Scotland, with 359 ATMs gone over 11 months.

Read more: Regulator investigates the scale of bank cash machine closures

Scotland has also lost one in three bank branches in just eight years, with over 400 closing since 2015, making it one of the worst affected areas in the UK, and more often than not, the cashpoints will also disappear with them.

Ms Ceeney warned: “It needs a bold step because otherwise we will be wringing our hands in five years time and saying, ‘good grief, where did the cash machines go?’. Warm words are not enough.

“There has been a deafening silence since the review, and in the meantime, I see more and more shops and councils going cashless and I just worry about those people who are going to get left behind.

Analysis: UK could be leaving banknotes behind - but what are the risks?

“My message to the MSPs is that there are millions of people across the UK and Scotland who absolutely depend on cash. For them it is a necessity, not choice. And if we just sit and wait, we are going to sleepwalk into a cashless society. That means we have to take action.”

HeraldScotland:

Ms Ceeney, the author of the Access to Cash review which warned the current system was “on the verge of collapse”, urged ministers and regulators to step in to ensure money is easily accessible, warning that digital payments do not yet work for everyone.

It said that around eight million adults, or nearly one in five, would struggle to cope in a cashless society.

Her review also said that  “cracks in the system are showing” - and that bank branch and ATM closures were just the “tip of the iceberg”.

The Payments Services Regulator is currently looking into the loss of free-to-use cash machines across the country and will examine consumers’ and society’s cash needs, as well as the incentives to keep cash machines, including the controversial fees structure.

Read more: Regulator investigates the scale of bank cash machine closures

Ms Ceeney said she feared the regulator was focusing on “a long term answer which will take them about two years”.

She warned: “At that point, we will see an awful lot of rural ATMs close. We would be better to get quick and dirty action now, that we accept is not perfect, but is good enough, with an appeal mechanism, to stop this situation getting worse.”

In Sweden, which is expected to become the world’s first totally cashless society by March 2023, Riksbank, the country’s central bank, has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the risks posed by a cashless society and the whole concept of legal tender. 

It comes after several banks decided to axe cash services, with more and more shops no longer accepting it.

Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency recently issued guidance to every household, telling residents to stockpile “cash in small denominations” for use in emergencies. These would range from power cuts and disrupted computer networks, through to terrorism and cyber-warfare.

It also raised concerns that not having access to any form of central bank money could make it more difficult for the Riksbank to promote what they describe as a “safe and efficient payment system in Sweden”, not just in times of crisis and war but also during peacetime. 

It estimated that, between 2012 and 2020, cash in circulation will have declined by 20–50 per cent.

It said: “The Riksbank hopes that the inquiry will put forward proposals that provide long-term protection for the utility of Swedish kronor issued by the Riksbank, in the form of both cash and the e-krona [electronic currency].”

HeraldScotland:

Ms Ceeney added: “One thing Sweden has learned is that once the infrastructure has gone, putting it back is virtually impossible. We must not let the infrastructure go.”

Moray Conservative MP Douglas Ross, who secured a debate raising concerns about cash machine closures in his area last week, said that, last year, he wrote to every bank operating in Scotland about establishing shared banking hubs where branch closures could leave customers financially excluded. However, he said the response was “disappointing”, with some “ignoring” the suggestion and others saying the idea was just not right for them.

Analysis: UK could be leaving banknotes behind - but what are the risks?

s Ceeney added: “Things are changing with more and more people using digital payments, and over time we are going to use less cash as a society. 

“Communities which at the moment need free ATMs may in 10 years time need a garage that gives cashback. 

“We have to be flexible and accept that the world is going to change. But what we must not do is lose access to cash as that world changes.”

She wants a guarantee of cash access to help the UK avoid sleepwalking into a cashless society – with those providing essential services required to allow consumers to pay by cash.

“What we recommend is to introduce a universal service obligation over cash. There are many things in the country we think are important.  We think it is important to be able to post a letter and get post, we think it is important everyone can get water in their homes, we think it is important we can get near a post office.

“We also think it is important that when you need it, you can get cash, because if you haven’t got cash and you need cash, it is pretty hard to function in society."

Chris Hemsley, the PSR’s head of policy, told a recent Which? cash summit that action was needed now to protect free access to cash from ATMs, ensuring that the current geographic spread of cash machines is protected.

HeraldScotland:

Ms Ceeney added: “If we leave this to market forces, we are already seeing ATMs go the same way as bank branches and high street shops. That is purely because the economics don’t work.

“We have a cash structure run by commercial entities and they are going to run on economics. 

“So we need to think differently. Let’s be innovative, you can get foreign currency delivered to our door, but in some areas can’t get cash, which seems silly.”