/ Money

Banks must commit to maintaining cash: my open letter

We’re urging the UK’s eight largest retail banks to publicly commit to maintaining cash. This is my open letter to each of them explaining why.


FAO: HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, Nationwide Building Society, NatWest, Santander UK, Barclays, TSB, Halifax.

In recent years we have seen seismic changes in retail banking and the UK’s cash infrastructure. The innovation that has allowed millions of consumers to enjoy the convenience of contactless payments and 24/7 access to their bank account via the mobile phone in their pocket has benefitted many. 

It is clear, however, that cash is still an important lifeline for millions of people across the UK, with our latest research finding 10 million people are not ready or able to give it up. As you will be aware from your own customers, many older or more vulnerable people rely on cash as a means of budgeting or managing payments.

Worryingly, COVID-19 has placed unprecedented strain on the cash system that was already perilously close to collapse.  

We welcome the industry, regulators and government reaching consensus to take action on the UK’s slide towards a cashless society that risks financially excluding these people – culminating in the Chancellor’s commitment in the 2020 Budget to legislation.

However, a year on, there is a very real risk that the cash network could fail before legislation arrives, with many ATMs and bank branches continuing to close across the UK without clear assurance that the changes truly meet the needs of consumers. 

This can be easily prevented. There is a real opportunity to guarantee the stability of the existing network while discussions around legislation continue. In particular, major banks can continue to support  the ATM and Post Office banking networks, which are critical to protecting current provision of cash withdrawal and basic banking services for millions of people across the UK.

The collapse of these networks will make it extremely difficult and, in some cases impossible, to reintroduce access to cash in some communities. 

Urgent steps must be taken to ensure that irreversible damage is not caused to the cash system until longer term protections are agreed. As such Which? is calling on the UK’s eight largest retail banks to publicly agree to: 

Continued membership of LINK, until legislation is passed and until a framework to protect access to cash has been implemented. This will ensure that both the Financial Inclusion and Protected ATM programmes will remain in place and will also guarantee the existence of LINK in the interim.

Continued membership of the Post Office Banking Framework, until legislation is passed and until a framework to protect access to cash has been implemented. This will ensure that the Post Office remains a viable back-up for communities that continue to lose ATMs and physical bank branches. It is clear that there is a large role for the Post Office to play in securing future access to cash, particularly in rural areas. As such, the Banking Framework must have guaranteed support and buy-in from industry until a long-term solution is in place.

These measures are not the antidote to all of the issues with the cash system, but they are critically important to secure the existing infrastructure in the interim.

The industry undoubtedly has an important role to play in developing a framework for a responsible and sustainably managed transition to digital and I urge you to recognise that banks’ individual commercial decisions can have a profound impact on the wider cash ecosystem. 

Your public commitment to both the Post Office and LINK will bring much needed stability to the cash system while long-term solutions are put in place. I look forward to receiving your responses in the next two weeks

Yours sincerely, 

Anabel Hoult.

05/02/2021: Update


I agree with this. One thing I have found tricky during lockdown is the fact that I have been almost unable to use cash.

V.trotter says:
1 February 2021

I luckily,living in a country village,do use cash whenever I want

Patrick Taylor says:
29 January 2021

In France, and perhaps other countries, it is a legal requirement that cash is acceptable by businesses. The fine is €35 for refusing to accept cash.

If I were in business I would take money in any legitimate form, the more liquid the better, and wear gloves if necessary for protection. A new law should not be required

Has anyone been infected with coronavirus as a result of handling cash?

We know that dangerous bugs can be found on phones and computer keyboards but our bodies cope with small numbers of bacteria and virus particles.

How would that be determined?

It’s difficult to provide scientific evidence that something does not cause a problem, for example that a chemical does not cause cancer. Ian has made this point in another Conversation.

Since the primary mode of transmission of coronavirus and other viruses affecting the respiratory system is via airborne droplets of water being inside a shop with other people is likely to present a far greater risk than handling cash.

I agree. From what have heard the amount of virus in cash is very little and unlikely to cause an infection. Similar, I suppose, to touching the keys on an ATM or card machine (when more than contactless). I always wear gloves.

I am grateful for the continuing efforts of Which? to protect access to cash on behalf of those that need to use it. For years it has been hard for people living and small businesses operating in some rural areas because of the loss of ATMs, bank branches and Post Offices based on commercial decisions rather than the needs of citizens. I have experience of the problem from my visits to the highlands of
Scotland. It’s no help to them that parts of the UK including my local town are well provided for.

As an individual I can cope without cash, though I expect to start handling it again when a charity that I’m a trustee of is able to resume operations.

I agree with this request to support existing sources where we can access cash while other and more sustainable solutions are added for the longer term. I want to keep cash, although accept that its use is diminishing. It may plateau of course.

LINK are, I believe, doing a good job in protecting a network. They say: “Between January 2018 and November 2020, the number of free-to-use ATMs reduced from 54,500 to 42,000. This represents an overall 23% reduction in the size of the free network (12,500 ATMs). However, a large number of these machines are temporarily closed as a result of COVID-19. Even given these temporary issues, the overall broad geographic coverage of the ATM network has been maintained in line with LINK’s objectives, as set out in this report.

And “LINK has put in place specific arrangements to protect free-to-use ATMs more than 1 kilometre away from their next nearest free-to-use ATM” (that does not seem an unreasonable distance).

And “LINK has also committed to ensure that every high street in the UK has free access to cash via an ATM or a Post Office.”

And “LINK has also set up a service that allows all communities to request help if they lack adequate access to cash”

I seem to remember reading in a Parliamentary report I think that as a result of the reduction in ATMs mist people are still no further than an extra 250m away.

However, this is a stop gap. ATMs and bank branches are expensive to run, paid for by us, and when usage declines they can become an uneconomic solution. However, where this happens in deprived areas LINK undertake to make much larger payments to the operators to keep them in place.

Also, existing ATMs are far from convenient, in distance, for very many people. So we are protecting many, but helping very far from all, who need convenient access to cash. We need to consider all of them, not just those lucky enough to be currently served.

Access to Cash trials are running for the next few months. I do hope one or more are successful and sustainable solutions emerges, in particular using cash business as points of access without the need for a purchase. If viable that could cover the whole of the UK in a way in which ATMs could not possibly, and at last help the vast majority with convenient access.

I sense that Which? realise that simply focussing on ATMs is no answer. I hope they are engaging with and putting their full support behind the Access for Cash initiatives being trialled.

I’m not sure that Which? are in a position to give the banks deadlines, however. I would have hoped they would be in discussions with the relevant parties rather than appearing confrontational.

One of the few positive outcomes of COVID-19 is that it has pressured the last remaining cash-only businesses (e.g. car washes) to start accepting cards. I haven’t used cash in the UK for six years, and it irritates me when a business accepts only cash, whether in the UK or abroad.

But equally I believe that essential businesses, such as supermarkets, should be obliged to accept cash. Not everyone can get a card easily, and everyone needs to eat for example. COVID-19 has prompted society to define what an essential business is, so this wouldn’t be difficult to legislate. Non-essential businesses should be free to decline cash, as it could be disproportionately expensive to accept.

Having said this, London buses stopped accepting cash on 6th July 2014, but they still accept cards at the point of boarding. A cash payer needs to go first to a shop to top up an Oystercard (and probably also use a cash machine before that), whereas a card payer can board the bus and touch their card on the card reader without that inconvenience. Sometimes consumers need to modernise.

But you can buy a new oyster card from an “outlet” for cash? Seems good for visitors and infrequent users. As long as this option remains I think it a good system.
You could buy a preloaded credit card for cash presumably for those who will not accept it directly; as long as there are plenty of places this can be done.
But I want cash to remain for all the reasons given in these Convos by many people. I am quite certain it will. There is no substitute for some in some transactions.

My point about London buses is that cash-paying passengers payers are disadvantaged compared to card-paying passengers, because a card-paying passenger can simply board the bus without any prior preparation, whereas a cash-paying passenger needs to visit an outlet first and buy or top up an Oystercard.

I have not used our buses for nearly a year but they still accept cash, though contactless cards remain the recommended option. I like the idea of businesses accommodating the needs of those it serves. Although I now have a bus pass, if I had to pay I would help by using a contactless card to minimise delay.

Jean Asbury says:
1 February 2021

Banks should absolutely maintin access to cash machines. Not everybody uses cards. If we do not maintain this facility it leaves an insidious decline of money within the community and difficulty in paying basic things such as church contributions for example. Having a cashless society does not necessarily help in money management.

Dave says:
2 February 2021

You can’t use a cash machine without a card…

Indeed 🙂

I think the point Jean was making was that many people prefer to control their spending by always using cash for purchases. I take it for granted that everyone with a bank account has a debit card, which provides the most convenient access to cash, but are not always comfortable with using it in shops or making contactless payments. Taking home a bundle of till receipts to tot up your available balance is not so handy as looking in your purse or wallet and seeing how much is left.

Accounts such as Monzo give a real-time balance, taking account of authorisations that have not yet materialised into a finalised transaction. This negates the need to calculate one’s balance using receipts.

That may be so, NFH, but for those who are not so attached to a smart phone that is not necessarily the way they want to manage their money.

With cash it is easy to see how much you have left. But it may not be so easy to see what you have spent money on.

Cash is also easily stolen, lost or mislaid. Contactless cards are a bit of a liability too in those respects but they are a neat way of paying for stuff.

In 30 years’ time, I expect almost every one will be paying by smart phone / watch / hand terminal, so Which? Will probably be campaigning for the retention of cards.

Derek, you correctly say that contactless cards are a liability. Let’s be clear that the liability is for card issuers, not for card holders. In the UK, card issuers underwrite any losses due to contactless fraud.

Thats a very good letter. Its the principle, really. What price democracy when unaccountable and unelected anonymous figures make this sort of decision which impacts on the lives of millions, and her his no democratic mechanism to stop it or find what people actually want?
On a more general note on this theme, online providers increasingly do not want feed-back, they actively prevent it by removing all means of communication from YOU to THEM, – phone, email – though they massively output from THEM to YOU. What can we do about that?
At the most general note, this sort of issue should be what Which is all about.

Thank you Which for circulating the letter regarding access to OUR cash !
I am sick and tired of hearing the whinging from Londoners, they have a point but the real vandalism by the banks is being brutally inflicted to our rural communities up and down the country who have no voice in this debate.

Robert, what do you believe Londoners are whinging about? Londoners are quite happy with the status quo, whereby we can use cards almost everywhere. The pandemic has improved the status quo in this respect.

Maintaining cash is not just about protecting those who can only manage this way (due to lack of devices, skills, or money). It is crucially important also for those of us who use legal tender (cash) because it is the safest and most reliable way to effect everyday transactions. Exposure to crime with cash is limited to the amount you chose to carry – use of digital transactions can expose you to unwanted surveys and marketing, scams and fraud that can reach every penny – even life long savings. Digital transactions are exploited by petty crooks, organised crime, terrorists, and multinational crime syndicates. And Governments. Yet Financial Institutions, governmental organisations, and commerce encourage us, and in some cases force us, to abandon cash. The same bodies tell us their systems are safe but continually issue advice on staying safe and introduce multi-layered and arduous
security. Yet even themselves have system failures and hacks. Those who willingly embrace non-cash transactions are risking the freedom of more prudent or more security conscious people to protect themselves. Until these systems can be comprehensively secured their use and introduction should be limited. With the amount of downsizing and de-skilling that has encouraged cashless transactions the increasing level of system crashes and fraud could result in severe disruption of commercial and personal finance with no fallback possibility.

The banks are doing what the government wants they want to control us the people, they want to know what and we are or been 24 hours a day they also want to stop drug dealing is a cash only organisation nothing to do with saving our money just the government controlling the many but not the few

Dennis, there is no evidence that either the banks or the government want to control people. They do, however, want to allow consumers to modernise, and most consumers welcome this. Obviously this is inconvenient for technophobes and for tax-evading cash-only businesses.

I think we need to be careful about condemning everyone who will not modernise as a “technophobe”. For some people it is a mental or physical impossibility. I acknowledge that others are just downright recalcitrant but we need an inclusive outlook to the availability of cash. There are other ways of dealing with tax evaders than taking all cash out of the economy.

John, I cited technophobes and tax-evading cash-only businesses as examples of those whom a cashless society is inconvenient. I did not state that everyone who does not modernise falls into one of these examples. You are changing my words.

NFH – Apologies if I misunderstood you, but context is everything and the placing of phrases in paragraphs affects our sense of meaning.

I see no sinister motive in technology helping most of use carry out our financial dealings more conveniently. I use online banking, pay by card – contactless or otherwise – as a routine. However there are transactions for which cash is the only practical solution; many examples have been given in past comments.

In my case, I bowl indoors in a couple of village halls weekly – or did until lockdown. Neither hall has good electronic communication. People turn up and play and contribute £2 for the session. In cash. I see no reason why more complicated payment methods should be forced on people for this sort of transaction. Bank transfer would mean the organiser having to monitor whether each attendee had paid, card transactions seem difficult without good communication, and the existing system works perfectly well.

Cash, will, I believe remain with us for many years to come, certainly until after I stop bowling, because it is useful.

Gary Nolan says:
1 February 2021

Hi folks. I used to believe cash was safe in a bank also and looked into Bail-ins – obviously now very true. I heard people were getting interviewed when wanting to withdraw monthly salary size withdrawals. So, I have been in person, 10 times, all during January and drew another salary amount out today and Nationwide kept me waiting for an hour for just a small amount of money – I now know why.

A few hours later two police officers came to my door about the withdrawal – POLICE!

They had a quick chat with body cameras on and left saying they would return with an investigating officer. 20 minutes later they returned with another Police investigator (no banking official) and quizzed me more about taking my money out the bank!

Police now involved in looking after banks interests it seems – have any of you ever heard this before?

Gary, please tell us the rest of this story. It sounds as if there’s a lot more to the story than simply the police turning up at your door after you made a cash withdrawal. What questions did they ask? What did they suspect might have happened? Were they trying to protect you from fraud, for example, by making sure that you had not been coerced by a criminal or rogue trader into withdrawing such a large amount? If so, this is good proactive policing.

How would you feel for example if the police stopped you while driving and asked you to prove that it was your car? Would you be annoyed by being stopped? I would thank the police for protecting my property. It sounds as if something similar happened with your large cash withdrawal.

Quite a lot of telephone scams do involve conning victims into making untraceable cash transfers, so that is good reason for constructive challenge by banks or police. Fly by night doorstep scammers also often progress to demanding large cash payments.

I imagine that making eleven ‘salary sized’ cash withdrawals within a four week period rang an alarm bell in the banking system and suspicion arose that the account was being used for money laundering in some way or other. If that is case then I think it was the right move.

Gary described his ‘salary sized’ cash withdrawal as “just a small amount of money”. Perhaps a four-figure sum is seen as that nowadays.

John, I don’t think that the bank suspected money laundering. On the contrary, it is more likely that the bank or police perceived Gary as a potential victim of crime, not as the perpetrator of crime.

NFH – Yes, that is a strong possibility. They might have thought that somebody was demanding payments and forcing Gary to make frequent large withdrawals.

I had never come across the term ‘bail-in’ before Gary mentioned it. I looked it up and cannot see how it might be relevant in the situation he has described. As you wrote originally, more information on this interesting case would certainly be welcome.

Kathleen says:
1 February 2021

Nat West Bank has kept my supply of cash going through its Vulnerable Customers telephone system. How else would I pay the many people who have kept me supplied with food and other necessities for most of the last year? I have a ‘main shopper’ who cantata the special non contactless credit card to use but the pharmacy window cleaner plus 2 others today needed cash.

Cash is not the only method by which all these parties could have been paid. For example, window cleaners can accept payments by card or bank transfer, unless of course they are evading tax.

stephen says:
1 February 2021

i only cash for everything below £30, not seen anyone refusing it

Stephen, why do you self-impose an amount threshold? Why, for example, would you pay £18.88 in cash but pay £40 by card? Paying £18.88 in cash requires £10 + £5 + £2 + £1 + 50p + 20p + 10p + 5p + 2p + 1p (or to receive change from £20), whereas paying £40 in cash requires only £20 + £20. You are saving more time paying by card for the £18.88 purchase than for the £40 purchase.

Mary says:
2 February 2021

Is there a government petition we can sign to help the many thousands of people who are desperate to be able to have access to cash? For example, I do online banking and paying bills, etc, because it’s easier, especially in this pandemic. HOWEVER, I like to be able to tip the guys who are delivering my infrequent restaurant orders, some coming from miles away and trying to find a strange house in the dark. There are times that only cash will do because WE don’t all take credit cards!!!

Mary – There is no need for a petition at the moment because the government has pledged to ensure continued access to cash and is actively taking steps to make it happen.

The points you have made echo those made by scores of other commenters in this and other Conversations and in other media.

It is unfortunate that this issue is being confounded by conspiracy theorists and exaggerators who are causing people to worry and panic.

I can understand people who personally favour entirely non-cash transactions but I don’t see why some wish to impose that on the rest of society and oppose the government’s proposals to protect cash as a means of exchange.

The government must listen and make it law that banks still use cash. Not all persons are willing to use cards, because using cash they can keep a check on their spending . The only reason for banks to want to stop using cash is it is easy and cheaper for them. There is the other side to this which means the banks will need less staff.

Ivan – The banks are going to continue to close branches because not enough people are using them and that is why it is vital to maintain an adequate provision of cash machines and to create other ways of supplying cash into the local economies. That is the purpose of Which?’s policy and campaign.

Cash is a physical set of tokens that pass between the spenders and the providers. You either have it in the pocket or you don’t when it has been given to another person. Until the electronic age the cheque or postal order was the only personal alternative, though one could visit a bank and ask for money to be transferred. The electronic age brought with it the opportunity for the criminal world to access wealth – your wealth – by stealth and by persuasive scams of various sorts. The system plays catch up every time it gets hacked or defrauded. The anonymity of cash means that it can be used to evade the tax system, though this is a punishable offence if HMRC get to know about it. With the universal acceptance of the credit and debit card and the need to have somewhere to store surplus cash, other than the mattress, cash is now used for smaller purchases and specific needs like charities, local subscriptions, coffee mornings, birthday gifts, pocket money and tips. I recently parted with a few notes to a removals firm and they were gratefully received.
There is some distain shown to those, like me, who refuse to bank on line. I do check balances that way but don’t transact any business. I don’t have the need to use a computer keyboard on which I (or anyone else) can mis-type instructions and account details. Many say it is safe and convenient and I respect that view. My life style keeps things simple and I can get along happily with credit cards, cash, cheques and a monthly statement. There should be room for me and others like me in the financial system. Daily scams exploit our financial weaknesses and, to date they are regularly winning millions of pounds and they are not getting caught in significant numbers. With cash, you either have it in the pocket and the bank or you don’t, it is as simple as that! Unless the bank goes bankrupt it is safe. We have used cash for centuries. It has a reassuring solidity about it and everyone understands what it does and how it is used. I should be sorry to see it go.

Val Carlill says:
2 February 2021

Although I use a card for most transactions I do need cash too. We have already lost all 5 of the banks in my urban area. If I want a bank I have to get a bus into the city. If we also lose the cashpoints it will be a disaster. Especially as I am shielding because of Covid. In theory a cashless society maybe a good thing. In reality it isn’t. The banks need to get together & ensure each community has at least one cashpoint.

I live in a seaside town of 12,733 that depends on day-trippers. We have lots of small businesses and shops on two main roads served by one bank because all of the others have closed. How businesses and older people cope, I do not comprehend.

Judi.Best says:
2 February 2021

Cash is vital for small businesses and also where there is a bad signal for the use of card machines :
Often at Fairs or Markets for instance.

It’s not true that cash is vital for small businesses. Plenty of small businesses deliberately choose to operate 100% cashlessly in order to avoid the costs of handling cash. A bad mobile signal is the exception, not the rule.

Earlier today it was mentioned that you cannot use an ATM without a card. I’m aware that some banks do provide this option. My bank provides this facility as part of its mobile app. At present this can be used at its own ATMs and at a major supermarket. I presume that other banks provide similar services.

I agree with that observation. But we’ve already seen that smartphones can double as payment cards. Furthermore, without a SIM card, a smartphone cannot operate, so a card of some form is still needed.

It should also be noted that not all cashpoint cards are usable as payment cards.

But all of this is really straying from the point that some folk prefer to pay using cash. It is their choice and, on an Internet forum of all places, I fear we may not be hearing from a truly representative number of such folk.

[Sent from my smartphone. ]

Derek, although it’s a moot point, the payment functionality of a smartphone does work without a SIM card. It doesn’t need any kind of connectivity, except for when it is initially set up, which can be done via wifi. Also many networks are moving to eSIMs, which avoids any kind of physical card.

Indeed a moot point. And isn’t NFC connectivity needed for contactless payments?

My friends don’t own terminals so if I owe them for a small purchase I use cash. Also to tip my hairdresser, pay my chiropodist, car-wash attendant, tip my postie, bin men, paper boy, give to the homeless and Big Issue sellers (they can’t afford to run a terminal). After all, we all know that ‘Cash is King’.

Sorry Derek. When I wrote “connectivity“, I should have written specifically “internet connectivity“. NFC isn’t internet connectivity, but even more local than Bluetooth.

Pat, your friends don’t need a card terminal to receive a payment from you. You can simply send a bank transfer, possibly to their mobile number using PayM or PingIt if you don’t have their sort code and account number. There is no need for cash, which is no longer king.

I would be interested in having a Conversation about alternatives to cash, NFH. This one is about maintaining access to cash and most of the contributors are likely to be those who want to keep cash. Pat is clearly one of them and I hope she can continue to use cash for as long as she wants to.

If you like, I am a convert because I have not used cash for over a year. This is partly because of the pandemic. I did not use mobile banking until I had a modern mobile with security software. Once life returns to normal I expect to have to deal with cash (and cheques) on behalf of a charity. I remain interested in how I can collect donations from members of the public where there is no reliable mobile signal.

Looks like the means for offline card payments is emerging technology but not yet completely risk or hassle free:-https://www.mobiletransaction.org/how-to-accept-credit-card-payments-offline/

So cash may still be king of the wilderness.

I suspect very many people have used little or no cash for the last 12 months simply because the opportunities have not been there; in my case anyway.
I am not a convert because of Covid; I’ve used “electronic” payments for a long time and cash regularly but in very small amounts generally, for sport fees, occasional lottery tickets, some parking and the like. I don’t expect that to change as life returns to some semblance of normality.

Thanks for the link, Derek. With so many areas having good mobile coverage there might not be a great demand to find a solution. I’m keen that we can accept alternatives cash because fewer people may carry it in future and our charity could lose out.

According to this https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/mar/07/britons-use-cash-everyday-payments-report-finds
Eight in 10 Britons rely on cash for everyday payments, report finds
This article is more than 1 year old
Study says 97% of population carry coins or notes after report warned of cash’s demise

The “report” is 2 years old (and I don’t know how sound the basis is) but I wonder if our practices and habits change so quickly. We have repeatedly seen here the valid reasons that people use cash and want to retain it, even though the amount they use decreases.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1058126/share-of-people-who-carry-cash-united-kingdom-by-reason/ Gives the reasons, although published 2018. I doubt, though, that those reasons suddenly change.