/ Money

Are we sleepwalking into a cashless society?

Going fully cashless will leave millions behind – do you agree with the steps the Access to Cash Review is recommending?

This is a guest post by Natalie Ceeney CBE. All views expressed are Natalie’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Britain is not ready to go cashless. While many enjoy the simplicity and convenience of digital payments, they don’t yet work for everyone.

Our research found that around 17% of the population – 8 million adults – would struggle to cope in a cashless society.

Which? News: access to cash under threat

There is a widespread (and incorrect) perception that the main issue is with the old. In fact, the biggest indicator of being dependent on cash is poverty. Many people simply can’t take the risk of getting into debt, and cash remains the safest way of budgeting.

But we are fast moving away from cash. A decade ago, over 6 in every 10 transactions in the UK were in cash. It’s now down to just 3 in 10, and could fall to around 1 in 10 in 10-15 years.

Bank branch and ATM closures

We have an expensive cash infrastructure built for a world of high cash volumes, which is becoming unaffordable as cash volumes decline. We are already seeing cracks appearing with closures of bank branches and ATMs, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Today’s recommendations are built on a huge amount of analysis and data that we’ve gathered, not just from the UK, but also overseas.

We’ve taken into account a wide range of evidence, speaking to more than 120 organisations, including Which? and other consumer groups, as well as talking to thousands of consumers directly.

What we’re calling for

If we do nothing, we will have communities unable to access cash, and unable to spend it. We’re calling for:

A guarantee of access to cash

Cash access to be kept free to consumers

An investigation into the costs of banking cash for small businesses

A requirement for essential and monopoly services to accept cash

Rethinking infrastructure

As cash is free for consumers, we don’t tend to think much about the costs. But behind our ATMs and shops is a complex and expensive infrastructure costing around £5bn per year.

This was built for an age of high cash, and for profit. It’s now expensive to operate and, as cash declines, becoming uneconomical. If we want to keep cash viable, we need to think radically.

There are examples in Sweden, Norway and Finland that we can learn from. As their cash use has declined, they have created a joined up ‘utility’ for the wholesale infrastructure supporting cash, to keep cash viable.

We’re calling for the Bank of England to convene a group to develop a radically different model for the wholesale management of cash.

Policy and regulation

We can no longer take cash for granted. We need clear government policy on cash, a programme of work to develop digital payments which can include everyone, and a joined up oversight and regulation of cash.

Cash can no longer be seen as just a commercial issue. We believe that our recommendations will help keep cash viable for consumers, in a way which industry can afford.

But we now need action, before it’s too late – before we lose our cash infrastructure and millions are left behind.

This is a guest post by Natalie Ceeney CBE. All views expressed are Natalie’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?. 

Help us protect cash as a payment option: sign our campaign

Do you feel that we’re sleepwalking towards a cashless society? How could we be more prepared?

John says:
7 March 2019

Cashless society is good for banks(they can cut down on staff); the loss of cash machines places more demand on those older citizens and those who have or unable to have bank accounts,or mainly to save some money, or to survive from week to week.. Now banks in my area are informing us they will not pay cash over the counter and they have shut or are going to shut branches outside main city area’s. More cash machines going. ATM company needs to make money for itself, so it will soon begin charging fees to those attempting to get to their own cash out of banks(who have paid for this service in the past).
Market Traders Look out your cash flow is going to dry out if we let this trend continue and people like you as well as the consumer will suffer. Do support the Consumer Assoc. case.

a good few years back people would get a service from the banks they would listen to customers these days they couldn’t give a monkeys what people think they are closing branches left right and centre in small towns and villages where they are a life line to many people who do not do internet banking because a lot of people do not have a computer or like myself do not trust the internet to do my banking the banks know that everybody’s money from wages or pensions is paid directly into the banks these days and it’s this money from workers to pensioners that the banks use for there investments to make profits and what service do the people get, bugger all apart from closing branches and a f*** you attitude

Imdad Na'eem says:
7 March 2019

You are right Graham in everything you have said.
There was a time when banks sought customers, and were nice & polite to them, but since Margaret Thatcher gave the banks access to workers wages / pay, and £Billions, without having to make any effort to seek customers, the services provided by banks have been deteriorating all the time, and they have become uncaring and arrogant in their attitude towards customers.

We as customers have to find a way to curb inflow of all this MEGA-MONEY from our wages and pay,

Peter Creed says:
7 March 2019

You are so right if have to use cards for all payment what happens if you lose yours and are whating for a replacement you are stuck but with cash you can carry on.
We are losing our branch of Santander in my town plus their cash machines the nearest branch is 4 miles away.
Yes banks don’t care always the bottom line of profits for shareholders to hell with the public

Peter, I think the trick needed here is to have more than one card but to never carry them both together.

So if you lose your main one, just rush home and, after you’ve reported the loss of your main card, just get out your spare and use that for a bit.

Patricia Terhorst says:
7 March 2019

Agree with many of the posts very concerning as the internet is not fully set up for preventing fraud
Many people can not afford computers or equipped to cope with the internet as it is not user friendly enough for those who are not computer literate , so many do not have families to rely on for assistance
When the internet has glitches your hands are tied to having access to one’s monies
Banks are very short sighted it is going to cause a major crisis !!!!!!
Thousands of people if not millions rely on the cash machines , its iniquitous to remove them !!!! 😣
The elderly who can not make trips rely on their check books to make payments !!!
You cannot just delete a population of peoples !
Banks really need to think again !!! 😞

After several millennia of so-called civilisation, even real life is not fully set up for preventing fraud.

But don’t worry folks, I’m sure help is on its way….

Brian Kermode says:
7 March 2019

With all the bank closures the Post Office is missing out on anopertunity to expand their banking, which would surely be a good thing in rural communities. Access to cash is a must, and the PostOffice would be in a good position to fill this knead.

Post Offices would be a good place to site 24/7 ATMs, especially where banks have closed. Who wants to stand in a queue in a Post Office when there is a better solution available?

“ATM Locator
There are over 2,600 free-to-use* Post Office Money® ATMs (owned and operated by the Bank of Ireland) in our branches.

I don’t know of one in any of the places where it is a distance to travel to the nearest ATM. There needs to be coordination to help us access our money.

Most ATMs offer 24/7 access to cash. However I do not see why 24/7 is essential; convenient and nice but I suspect the vast majority of people will be able to arrange their cash withdrawals accordingly. There may be areas where for security reasons ATMs cannot be accessed round the clock.

Baz says:
7 March 2019

I’m 87 and have great difficulty getting around. I live alone but have a neghbour who comes in once aweek to clean my home and do my washing and ironing. I pay her cash. I have a neighbour who helps be get dressed ina morning. I pay him cash. I have a neighbour who looks after the garden, puts out the bins and will shop for me. I pay him cash.
I suppose I could go to the local authority and claim benefits and help that could cut down my need for cash but I prefer it this way.

Liz Templar says:
7 March 2019

Very pleased to hear that you have such lovely neighbours Baz. What a blessing 🙂

It is essential that cash is still a full alternative to cashless transactions. it is only a matter of time before this country and others are hit with a major breakdown of the banking systems either by outside interference by hacking. There is growing evidence of foreign state sponsored hacking from many potential enemies and our banks security systems have shown that they are not immune from these threats.
In addition to this there are repeated breakdowns from all banks with their systems and it would only take a major system problem within the banks clearing systems to freeze all transactions bringing total chaos to our country.

Bob says:
7 March 2019

The ‘idea’ of a cashless society would depend on transparency of information ie like a priest or Doctors confidentiality. This is not what’s on offer. No one is talking about a personalised encrypted blockchain for each individual in society. The wealthy will be able to hide their taxable liability as they always have
The drift towards a continuous reduction of infrastructure is simply a question of the bottom line.
Who’s going to provide and maintain a machine and maintain the cash supply in it. The banks will if they are going to make money.
The drift towards a cashless society is also a drift toward urban living when only the very wealthy can afford to live in the country. This is the policy of institutional politics. Food control on one hand and a model for environmental protection on the other.

Liz Templar says:
7 March 2019

I live alone and am no longer able to get out and about. Until recently, I kept a few hundred pounds in the house so I was able to pay workmen, etc. Then the government changed the currency and since I couldn’t get out to get it changed I now have a drawerful of useless cash and can’t even pay a window cleaner. I do all my shopping online, so food etc isn’t a problem, but window cleaners don’t (presumably) accept Visa or PayPal. I don’t see how a cashless society could possibly work. Mine doesn’t 🙂

Liz, if your obsolete currency is withdrawn Bank of England bank notes, there are methods for exchanging them…


Ab Le says:
7 March 2019

Hello Liz,
Any Post Office will exchange your old notes for new.
I recently emptied my son’s piggy bank and found £45 in old notes in it. There are no local banks, so I took it to the Post Office and within two minutes it was exchanged. No paperwork, no fuss, just a straight exchange and a very pleasant service.
I hope you get it sorted.
Best wishes.

There’s no problem with changing obsolete notes. Earlier this year I exchanged an old £5 and £10 note recently after being unable to contact the previous occupants of my house.

What about the 10/- notes in my wallet? One of those was 5% of my weekly pay when I started work!

Robert Bookless says:
7 March 2019

I don’t trust internet banking as there are too many ways to defraud customers.

terry carr says:
7 March 2019

I buy lots of items at car boot & market stalls, they only take cash. Therefore I need a ready supply of cash. I also like the feel of cash. KEEP CASH

I like in a rural area , the nearest town is 4 miles away, there is currently an atm outside our village shop. each week we shop in the town at a supermarket , we also shop for our neighbour who is 87. we pay for his shopping our debit card he then pays me for his shopping in cash. if we were cashless then I would not be able to do his shopping as he would not have a way to repay me. I’m.also a pensioner and if he paid me by cheque it would mean that I would be short of money. my neighbour like a lot of elderly people does not use the internet so can’t shop on line.

Diana says:
7 March 2019

I am in a similar situation. I also like to give a cash gift at Christmas to my window cleaner and the Hermes delivery man. I also like to shop at market stalls and I don’t think that poppy sellers have a card machine. If I travel by bus before 9.30 How would I pay my bus fare? I use cash a lot of the time so I hope there is no cashless society in my lifetime.

Kathleen Chenery says:
7 March 2019

I believe these changes are happening far to quickly, we, the general public are having trouble keeping up with the changes banks are making. There was a time when banks could be very helpful, sadly that is all changing now.

Derek Palmer says:
7 March 2019

living in a rural area access to cash vital. Rural traders eg farm shops, casual traders do not usually
have electronic cash payment. Paying money to friends or family on social basis or giving money to
grandchildren cash is vital.

Will says:
7 March 2019

If cash is taken away it will have a direct impact on individual freedom.
People who unfortunately find themselves at the bottom of the ladder will be in a state of desperation.
If someone is homeless through no fault of their own how can they buy a tea & sandwich etc?
What happens to people who are bankrupt.
The whole idea is preposterous & probably is being pushed by the extremely greedy & destructive 1%.

Watson says:
7 March 2019

People forget that to be able to have a cashless society you need electricity. No power will then cripple not just people but countries and all could be held to ransom.

Comes down to the present selfish attitude me, me, profit at any cost.

We would then go back to having to barter if there was no cash in note or metal form.

Just plain stupidity and should be made illegal to do away with cash as this is the fail safe/emergency way of doing business.

A good point Watson. ATMs aren’t any help when the power fails either.

Even the fectional bartertown needed its electricity…


I hope that ATMs have an uninterruptible power supply in case of a power cut. It’s a sensible precaution for anyone who uses a desktop computer for purposes such as online banking.

Sam says:
7 March 2019

On several occasions I have been in shops / pubs when the IT goes down – in the pub only people still able to buy a glass of wine where the ones with cash. In the shops the staff had to take a note of the items and could only take sale from customers with cash.
Also cash is private and your not monitored by companies etc.
Think of this, a foreign power doesn’t need nuclear weapons when all they have to do is crash our IT systems, and turning it off and on again won’t fix that problem.

Ron Davis says:
7 March 2019

I always deal in cash as a general rule unless the transaction is of a high value. I object to having to wait while cards are pushed through the system, it takes to long for the the pin number etc to work , & I would not use it my self because it just leaves a paper trail for interested parties to use to see what my spending activities are.

Do not understand this sentence at all: ‘they have created a joined up ‘utility’ for the wholesale infrastructure supporting cash’ . However having visited these countries and not being able to use cash for the smallest sum actually stops me buying at all. My NatWest bank card takes £1 minimum charge for using it for payment abroad. So if,say, a bottle of water costs £1 I’m charged £2 for the privilege of using my card. I will put it back on the shelf. This is why cash is king!

My local Santander Bank is closing in June which means having to travel further to access cash, One heard of hundreds of banks closing their doors without considering the needs of the general public, Many people are not happy using cards on a daily basis. I prefer cash and never use cards in the supermarket. The only time I use a debit card is to withdraw money from the ATM and I would never use an ATM outside the bank! I do not like credit cards but would use one when ordering goods online. It is a stupid idea trying to rush into a cashless society, we are simply not ready for it.

I do not like the fact that debit cards can be used in the supermarket by just swiping the card, this is open to abuse if the cart was lost or stolen. I would NEVER bank online as that is far too risky and banks are not very willing to help when things go wrong!

The very idea of a cashless society is undoubtedly being driven by the banking industry and we all know the contempt that sector has for its customers. It would be totally in their interests if cash were to be done away with; they could then close all their branches and make most of their staff redundant. What makes it worse is that the government is colluding with them. This subject was raised in PM’s question time yesterday (6th) and Mrs May’s reply must have been music to the ears of the bankers. Yes, she may be right to say that fewer transactions are being made in cash than previously but this is no argument for outlawing cash completely.
Youngsters may be comfortable with having no cash in their pockets but the older generation would struggle with that concept. As an OAP, I use technology without fully trusting it and like many of my generation, I do not trust the banks at all; they are only interested in what is best for them, not for their customers. We do not treat our old very well in this country and a genuine cashless society would be yet another example of marginalising a generation who have worked all their lives, paid their dues, but are only seen as fit for the scrapheap.

Alastair Clark says:
7 March 2019

Of course using a credit/ debit card is very handy when one is shopping or topping up an Oyster card. But cash is still much handier for paying small amounts or to say the window-cleaner. Cash or cheques are still needed for transactions between individuals and both methods are threatened.
Also what happens if the technology for processing card payments fails or the power fails? Cash always comes in handy too.