MINISTERS have refused to intervene in the access-to-cash crisis – as it has emerged that around 10 free-to-use ATMs have continued to shut down every week in the last year.

The Herald can reveal that despite attempts by MPs to take action to prevent the UK sleepwalking into a cashless society, the UK Government has said it will not step in.

It comes as new data produced exclusively for The Herald by the consumer organisation Which? reveals that despite concerns about the disappearance of hundreds of bank branches and free-to-use cash machines in Scotland, the rate of decline has accelerated.

The number of free-to-use ATMs has fallen below the 5000 mark in Scotland for the first time.

In July, there were 4767 free-to-use cashpoints – 516 fewer than in July 2018, meaning 43 are disappearing every month.

Some 85% (426) of the losses have occurred in the last six months – at a rate of 71 a month.

Parliamentary constituency areas of Scotland worst hit in the year are Glasgow North, which has seen nearly one in four of its 88 free ATMS go, and Glasgow North West, where there has been a 22% drop from 82 last year to 64 now. It has seen one in five cashpoints axed in the last six months alone.

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Meanwhile, more than one-third of Scotland's bank branches have closed between January 2015 and August this year. Some 396 have vanished, leaving the nation with 643.

In June, former financial ombudsman Natalie Ceeney told The Herald that Britain was “sleepwalking” into a cash-free society it is ill-prepared for, and millions of people will be left disadvantaged as a result.

READ MORE: South Lanarkshire town that was left with no banks

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

Ms Ceeney met MSPs in Edinburgh during the summer to discuss the issues, hoping the Scottish Government could put pressure on Westminster to end the decline.

In August, MPs told ministers that consumers should have an access-to-cash guarantee and a legal right to have a bank branch in their town if their is no voluntary commitment.

The report on access to cash from the Scottish Affairs Committee also called for government intervention to prevent any further cuts to fees payable by banks to ATM operators – seen as a key reason why cash machines have either disappeared or started charging consumers to withdraw their money.

The report called on ministers to consider all measures, including legislation, to ensure communities still have access to vital banking services.

It was launched in Cambuslang, a town of 25,000, which went from having three bank branches to having none in the space of 18 months from 2016. At the same time the number of cash machines dropped from four to two.

An ATM Industry Association study showed that Scotland is the second most at-risk area in the UK in terms of the threat to free cash machines. And Glasgow is one of the five worst-affected areas outside London.

However, a government response, seen by The Herald, holds little hope of any ministerial action.

It said: "Government cannot reverse the changes in the market and in customer behaviour, nor can it determine firms’ commercial strategies in response to those changes. However, the Government will continue to work with the sector to maintain access to vital banking services and ensure that banks support communities across the UK when their local branches close.

"The Government is committed to safeguarding access to cash and proud that Scotland and the rest of the UK has an extensive free-to-use ATM network. However, it is important to note that as consumers use digital products more to make and receive payments, the demand for cash and ATMs will continue to fall. While industry must have the flexibility to take such trends into account when making decisions on how best to provide their services, the Government expects commitment from industry to protect access to banking and cash for those who need it."

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.

READ MORE: Scottish people pay price as one in seven can't use bank cards due to IT failures

The government says industry statistics state that cash is being used in a decreasing proportion of UK transactions, falling from 60% of payments in 2008 to 28% in 2018.

Correspondingly, the number of ATM transactions is declining, with volumes expected to be around 10% lower in 2019 than 2018.

"The Government has been clear that decisions around a bank’s branch network are commercial and it would be inappropriate for the Government to intervene in how banks provide their services.

"The Government, therefore, has no plans to consult on, or introduce, statutory regulation for bank branch provision.

"It is vital that firms have the flexibility to respond to market trends and changes in customer behaviour, and decisions on a branch network must remain as commercial decisions for the banks themselves," said the Government response.

"Having this flexibility is what makes the UK’s financial services sector one of the most competitive and productive in the world, and the Government wants to protect that."

Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, said: "Scotland has lost more than a third of its bank branches in less than five years and one in 10 free cashpoints have closed in just a year. That should be a real wake-up call that urgent action is needed.

The Herald:

"Years of mismanagement from the banking industry and regulators has left the cash infrastructure on the verge of collapse – leaving many people cut off from the cash they need in their daily lives.

"While the last government ruled out intervening on individual bank branch closures, it's important that action is taken to guarantee access to basic banking services. At the bare minimum the next government should legislate to protect cash for as long as it is needed."

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

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

Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency 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.

READ MORE: Digital currency Scotcoin offered to Scottish Government

Riksbank is now looking at issuing a central bank digital currency (CBDC), called e-krona so that in "the event of serious shocks to the systems of the banks or card companies", it could be a digital alternative form of payment.

Riksbank says it provides a "state payment alternative that is available to all", a digital complement to cash, where the state would guarantee the value of the money.

Earlier this year, under UK government pressure, ATM network Link set up a £1 million fund from which cash-starved communities can draw in order to install a free cash machine. Within a month, it had fielded more than 100 requests.