Cashless society? Fine… until you lose your wallet as our Personal Finance editor found out

All too easy: The banks are relentlessly pursuing an agenda to take us away from using cash but it doesn’t work for everyone

Slowly but surely, like a Number 9 bus, we are moving towards a cashless society where plastic and payment apps rule. Move over bank and building society branches run by tellers with friendly faces. Tatty bye.

Adios, free cash machines and free crisp £10 notes – with big ATM operator Notemachine just announcing it could start charging just under a £1 for withdrawals at many of its 10,500 cash machines. 

And hello contactless payment, Apple Pay, Paypal, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Paym, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

So now, with a mere wave of a card – a piping hot 99p black filter coffee at Pret a Manger. No more fiddling in pockets or handbags for a purse, wallet or loose change – in the process making the queue behind you snake outside the door like a Burmese python.

Fine? In some ways, yes. Progress, convenience and all that. But are we being pushed rather too aggressively – strong-armed, in fact – towards a world where all our transactions will be made via mobile phones or the panoply of cards we carry in our wallets and purses?

A world where the banks, payment providers, Government officials and for that matter Uncle Tom Cobley (yes, him again) will be able to view our every spend like George Orwell’s Big Brother? 

And where retailers start refusing to take cash. Two theatres I visited recently declined to take my shillings. ‘Card only, sir.’ Or penalise us for using cash or cheques.

The answer to this key question is a big fat ‘yes’. If we are not careful, and fail to rein in this ruthless quest for a cashless society, we will all be worse off. 

At the mercy of the banks and their relentless pursuit of profit. High streets lie imperilled or ruined by the desertion of the banks and their branches and cash machines – like Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

Three hundred cash machines are scrapped every month. Increasingly, free ATMs turned into fee-charging ones. One thousand bank branches have been culled in the past year without an iota of reproach from Government Ministers still up to their armpits in Brexit manure.

Swathes of society, the elderly and lower income households in particular, have been financially excluded – an outcome that has already happened in Sweden as a result of its banking industry’s relentless pursuit of a cashless society, and which is now causing its government to wonder too late whether it has all gone too far.

300 cash machines are scrapped every month as more free ATMs turn into fee-charging ones

300 cash machines are scrapped every month as more free ATMs turn into fee-charging ones

And just as worryingly, for those of us who have embraced cashless payment and cashless banking without a care in the world, millions of decent, hard-working people have been left horribly exposed to a toxic mix of mounting bank fraud, IT meltdowns (think TSB) and rather frightening financial isolation when things go wrong.

I’ve been experiencing a dose of this and I don’t like it one bit. I had my wallet stolen somewhere in East London five days ago. It contained my debit card, credit card, driving licence, a mountain of loose change and a variety of gallery and cinema membership cards. 

Although both my bank and credit card provider swiftly cancelled the stolen cards, reassuring me that no one had emptied my account or used up my credit facility, and saying they would issue new ones, it now means I am temporarily cashless.

No access to cash, no plastic – and purely dependent upon the big hearts of friends to see me through until my new cards arrive. I feel financially powerless and very vulnerable. 

The loss of my cards has also had unexpected consequences. Rail tickets booked online via Trainline can only be accessed using a debit card and punching in a reference number at a train station.

But when I rang Trainline to enquire what I could do to get my weekend tickets to Birmingham, I was told: ‘Tough.’ The tickets could not be converted to e-tickets, accessible by phone. 

And while Trainline was willing to cancel the original booking and reissue new tickets, I would a) be charged for the privilege and b) could only do so if I had a card to pay for the new tickets. Arghhhh!!!

A report revealed 17% of us 'often' find ourselves in situations where cash is the only option

A report revealed 17% of us ‘often’ find ourselves in situations where cash is the only option

Not before time, a collection of the great and good are coming round to the view that we need to step back from the precipice of the brave new cashless world the banks want to push us towards.

Last month, an authoritative report compiled by Natalie Ceeney, former head of the Financial Ombudsman Service, highlighted the dangers. According to her Access To Cash Review, two million people in this country are dependent upon cash for their daily needs.

In addition, some 17 per cent of us ‘often’ find ourselves in situations where cash is the only option – for example, if a taxi driver will only take cash or they live in a rural community where poor mobile reception makes payment options other than cash nigh impossible.

Last week, I spoke at length to Ceeney. Her view is simple – access to cash must be viewed in the same way as our access to water and a postal system: a fundamental right. 

We cannot, she said, be bullied down a one-way road marked ‘card payment only’. Spot on. She added: ‘We need proper regulation to ensure everyone is guaranteed access to cash in the future. We need to get the Government together with the regulators and banks.

‘We must not allow market forces to solely dictate what happens. Otherwise the most vulnerable in society will be left abandoned and even those of us who do not rely on cash will only discover how essential it is when it is lost.’

Ceeney’s work seems to have made a mark. Last week, the Bank of England said it would be rounding up relevant ‘stakeholders’ – banking representatives, Treasury officials and the Financial Conduct Authority – to look at ways in which access to cash can be maintained ‘for those who want to use it’.

Ceeney’s report has a number of recommendations the stakeholders should chew on – not just keeping cash machines and bank branches open, but greater ‘innovation’ in provision of cash. For example, cash by post (the way many of us get holiday money) and more convenience store cashback facilities.

Consumer group Which? told The Mail on Sunday that the Government should – as a matter of urgency – appoint a regulator with responsibility for protecting our right to cash. 

Its role would be to ensure communities are not left bankless – or worse cashless because of the removal of the last cash machine in town – and would work closely with local councils that feel their communities are crying out for greater cash access.

But probably the most revealing comments were made by Sonali Parekh, head of policy at the Federation of Small Businesses.

She said cash should be readily accessible to everyone – businesses (especially independent high street retailers) and their customers.

‘Cash,’ she said, ‘remains a vital payment for many – particularly the elderly, those with disabilities and people who must budget carefully in order to get by.’ More tellingly, she said that if the banks win and turn the UK into a cashless society, they will have us where they always wanted us – over a barrel.

Living in a society where the only means of payment is controlled by them – enabling them to ratchet up payment charges at will.

Where in the future someone buying a 99p Pret a Manger black filter coffee, paid for via their contactless card, might be hit with an additional 10p ‘payment processing’ charge. Where all ATMs charge a fee for withdrawals.

Cashless society? No thank you. 

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