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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. It probably satisfies me. Challenges are an important part of keeping the register "clean", if I may so describe it; and political parties--they are probably the only ones--keep an eye on the register. I am pleased to have confirmation that challenges to the rolling register can be entertained. With those assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 27:

    Page 40, line 32, at end insert--

("(12) When a nominated proxy is approved by an electoral registration officer to hold a permanent or particular proxy vote for an elector, the electoral registration officer shall within three working days of the application write to the elector to confirm the name and address of the appointed proxy, and the duration of the appointed proxy, unless--
(a) the elector is registered as an overseas elector, or
(b) the appointed proxy is registered at the same address.").

The noble Lord said: The amendment is about the need to keep proxy voting secure. We had an interesting debate in Committee; I shall not go over it. At col. 1122 of the Official Report of 15th February, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, invited me to withdraw my amendment,

    "on the clear understanding that I am sympathetic to the purpose behind it. We shall try to bring back some provision to cover that eventuality".

Perhaps that will take place at Third Reading. I put down this marker to remind the noble Lord that we both agreed that there is a danger in proxy voting: that people's votes can be literally stolen from them. We are agreed that we should like to find some way to resolve the issue. Perhaps the Minister can give me an update. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I, too, can be brief. At Committee stage I said that I was sympathetic. I continue to be sympathetic. No doubt my sympathy will continue, extend and expand as we discuss the matter at Third Reading.

I have been busy checking my correspondence file. I thought that I had written to the noble Lord on the matter, but I am not entirely sure. Like the noble Lord, I am extremely concerned about proxy voters and the potential for abuse. I could give chapter and verse on vote stealing. It happened in one of my wards. I was extremely angry. We had a full investigation although it did not get us as far as I would have liked. I did not feel that the officials took the situation as seriously as they might have done.

Nevertheless, we want to deal with the issue. We think that regulations are a better way to achieve the purpose. I give a firm commitment today that we shall introduce regulations to achieve the end that the noble Lord seeks. I trust that with that commitment, he will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am again grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. If he has sent me a letter--I could not argue on that--I have either not received it or my office system (that is, myself) has not put it in its correct folder.

Lord McNally: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble Lord that the letter of 23rd February was copied to me.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I shall just need to sack my secretary in the morning! I apologise to the Minister for even raising the issue.

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However, at least we have it on the record. I am satisfied to deal with the matter by regulation. With the Minister's assurances that regulations will deal with the problem--we agreed in Committee that there was potential for stealing votes--I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 5 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 28:

    Page 43, line 46, at end insert--

("( ) Omit rule 20.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I had a letter from the Minister on this issue too! The amendment relates to the official mark. We had an amble around the course about the official mark. In this case the Minister was seized of the need to see whether a suitable replacement could be found for the official mark.

In Committee I pointed out that some people--not many but enough in one or two constituencies perhaps to make the difference--lost their vote because the official mark was not put on the ballot paper. No one has explained to me what good the official mark does nowadays. There are other serious infringements of the electoral law; the official mark does not address any of them.

I live in hope that the Government will take the issue on board and by a simple amendment remove the need for the official mark. As the noble Lord mentioned earlier, if we move towards electronic voting, an official mark becomes obsolete. However--dare I say this to the Minister?--not even his draftsman could improve on my drafting of the amendment to get rid of the official mark, which proposes simply to omit rule 20. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I shall not ooze more sympathy but give general encouragement. The noble Lord made his position commendably clear at Committee stage and today. It is a respectable position. He is not alone in holding that view. As I sought to explain in Committee, although the official mark has a venerable history--I believe from 1872--it does not mean that it has to be preserved unquestioningly, although it has undoubtedly served a purpose.

We accept the view of the Home Affairs Select Committee after consideration of the matter. It suggested that 2,000 or 3,000 ballot papers each time falling foul of the official mark was a problem, although, as the figures indicate, not a great one. It is unsatisfactory that otherwise valid votes are rejected simply because of an error by a polling station staff member.

For that reason, my ministerial colleague, Mike O'Brien, made clear in another place that we were keen to explore ways of replacing the official mark. We want to discuss that again with the major political parties and electoral administrators, who have an important view.

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Noble Lords may be interested to know that a number of the pilot schemes which we hope to be able to run this May have as one of their elements doing away with the official mark and using a watermark instead. It is an interesting and valuable innovation. We shall monitor those schemes to see how well they work. I referred earlier to electronic voting and the possible introduction of bar codes. I understand that another pilot--I think at Broxbourne--will have a bar code on the voting papers. Bar codes or water marks may well replace the official mark.

We want the pilots to show us how effective other methods may be. If the pilots work--it is an area where we can be reasonably certain--no doubt that is an innovation which we can probably agree is valuable, and one that we can roll out nationally with the caveats mentioned in debate on Clause 11 about the need and value of independent evaluation of new techniques and methods such as these.

Yes, there is some sympathy for the amendment. There is certainly practical action. Let us consider the success of other methods of marking papers, ensuring that they can be properly validated in the future. Let us see how well the pilots work. I trust that, with those more than warm words, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, given the progress that we made earlier, I was beginning to hope that I should win my battle about the official mark. It is not the first time I have brought the matter before your Lordships; I did so when I was a Back Bencher during the passage of another Bill in the early 1990s.

I suppose that progress on this matter is slow, but I remind the Minister what has been said by the Association of Electoral Administrators. It said that, disappointingly, some of the practical issues such as the abolition of the stamping instrument, have not been mentioned, but perhaps a couple of unstamped ballot papers resulting in election petitions during the pilot schemes may make the Home Secretary reconsider. We must encourage some controversy during the pilot schemes to see whether we can get the Home Secretary to think again.

Given the progress we have made today, it would be churlish of me to put the matter to the House. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


Lord Bach: My Lords, as consideration of the Representation of the People Bill is now complete, tonight's Unstarred Question is no longer restricted to the one hour available for the Dinner Break business. Instead, a limit of one-and-a-half hours will apply. This change does not affect the time allocated to my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey, but it increases to 11 minutes the time available to each of the other speakers.

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However, if noble Lords prefer to avoid the inconvenience of changing and extending their speeches at such short notice, I can assure them that they will attract no criticism from these Benches nor, I strongly suspect, from the House as a whole.

Link Bank Network

7.31 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton rose to ask Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are aware of the present intention of the Link bank network to impose new charges on users of cash machines; and whether this would be consistent with the Government's policy to combat social exclusion.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. I am the chairman of the United Kingdom Co-operative Council, an interest which appears in the Register of Interests. I do so especially because the Co-operative Bank is a member of that council, as is the Co-operative Insurance Society, the Co-operative Wholesale Society and all other expressions of the Co-operative enterprises. I also declare that I am a user of Nationwide's services. I can do no other; I did so even when it was called the Co-operative Permanent Building Society.

The timing of this short debate may or may not prove to be significant. I requested time for it some six weeks ago. As the House knows, timing is not in the gift of the usual channels but of the business managers, to whom I am most grateful. In the light of today's news, even my wording is out of date. Furthermore, like other noble Lords, I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross.

We are considering nothing less than a case of 21st century daylight robbery. Perhaps it is the first, but, sadly, it will not be the last. In my view, it is motivated by that most potent of basic instincts; greed. My Unstarred Question draws attention not only to this breathtaking exercise of corporate power, but also to the challenge it presents to the Government's strategy for giving those in need at the bottom of the pile some chance to share in the value of the banking world. In modern jargon, they are the socially excluded; deprived by virtue of their economic plight from enjoying, among other things, access to a bank account. We all know that that is the equivalent of a passport out of such exclusion into the modern world.

It is fashioned by many forces, but, in this context, shared by the action of the world of banks, which have presided over a resolution in which the typical person has been driven to rely on access to, not banks, not counters, not chequebooks, but, increasingly, the ATM; the hole in the wall. By their decision to exploit the situation, the large banks, led by Barclays, stand condemned as the modern "Hole in the Wall Gang". It is not only daylight, but modern highway and "high street" robbery as well.

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The House is entitled to hear the basic facts, which are these. In 1985, the Link network was established to enable some large building societies, including the Abbey National, Nationwide, Girobank and the Co-operative Bank, to share access to their cash machines. Since then, the Link network has grown and grown. A system of intercharge fees between Link members ensures that each bank is compensated for the cost of its machines being used by the customers of another bank. The Co-operative Bank, for instance, pays around 30p to another bank or building society when its customers use a competitor's machine, but it does not charge the customers in any way. It does not need to. It looks upon that use as part of its overall cost structure, paid for out of the profit it makes from using its customers' money. Why should banks charge, exorbitantly and outrageously, above the cost to them of providing this service? It is a charge for asking for some of your own money.

Today, there are some 27,000 cash machines, access to which is created by the 34 banks and building societies in the Link partnership. From the beginning in 1985, when customers were not charged for cash machine withdrawals, we have moved to a situation in which certain banks charge their customers a so-called "disloyalty" fee for using other cash machines. Subsequently, many Link members have--regrettably, in my opinion--demutualised and have begun to introduce disloyalty charges.

Make no mistake, it was that move which first drove a coach and horses through the principle of free cash machine withdrawals. But the amount of £1.50 per transaction cannot possibly bear any relation to the actual cost. It can be justified only on the basis of profit-making and it undoubtedly falls most heavily on those who can ill afford to pay £1.50 when they take out cash. Imagine a small account holder needing to withdraw £10, say, twice a week. The on-cost is outrageous.

Why do customers remain with such banks or building societies? The first reason is inertia; changing bank is too much trouble. Secondly, there is a lack of information. Customers are not informed of the disloyalty charges until they appear a month later on their bank statements. Barclays Bank officials told me today that they strongly favour transparency, and I welcome that.

I use this short debate to reveal the murky waters of how some financial institutions use their market power to the disadvantage of those for whom they profess to cater: not only the socially excluded, but their own customers.

When we talk about cash machine users, we are not talking about a small minority. As a result of banks having closed hundreds of branches and forced customers to use ATMs, about 70 per cent of the cash people use in Britain today is taken from cash machines. Almost eight in 10 of the adult population has an ATM card. There are around 2 billion cash machine withdrawals every year.

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Therefore, we have a system which, according to press reports, has been categorised by Don Cruickshank as,

    "inefficient, anti-competitive and socially exclusive".

It is the intention of the big banks further to distort this unfair situation by adding an additional £1 charge to the £1.50 already paid by many customers. Many of those customers are at the bottom of the pile and do not deserve this imposition. Quite frankly, neither they nor any other users of ATMs should have to bear this unfair charge; a charge used substantially to boost already swollen profits. The Co-operative Bank absorbs its cost of 30p per transaction. Why cannot others? Mervyn Pedelty, its chief officer, put it like this:

    "The reported moves by Barclays to charge other banks £1 for withdrawal is very disappointing when we all should be working towards improving customer services. It must not be forgotten that within Link there is already a system of interbank charges whereby we already pay other members to meet the costs of them serving our members. We therefore think it is wrong that Barclays feels that it needs to raise additional profit from withdrawals".

I would simply add that the operating profits of Barclays Bank increased in 1999 by 49 per cent to the figure of £2,942 million; nearly £3 billion. Why, in the light of such profits, Barclays wants to impose the £1 per use charge is beyond me. Today, its officials told me that the change to £1 per transaction would result in an increased cost to the bank. I note what it says, but I am more concerned about costs to poorer people than I am about the profits of Barclays Bank or any of the other big banks which support it.

I conclude by asking my noble friend whether he can comment on the accuracy of the press reports on Don Cruickshank's thrust of endorsing surcharges which will open the doors to charges for all. Will my noble friend support me in calling for a return to free cash machines for all? When the principle of surcharging is conceded, will the Government accept that 30p is the top charge to be tolerated?

Finally, will my noble friend take this opportunity to deny press reports that the 4,000 cash machines being installed in post offices may levy charges for withdrawals? Opening up banking in rural and deprived areas is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be done in such a way that encourages the prudent and does not pander to the feckless or the profligate; nor must it result in swelling the profits of those who already enjoy market domination.

I understand that today the Link organisation has accepted the proposal to introduce surcharging. I endorse the words of the chief executive of Nationwide, Brian Davis:

    "It is a sad day for consumers and for the financial services industry which has passed up the opportunity to listen to its customers and others".

Nationwide and the Co-op Bank intend to maintain their free withdrawals policy. They need the support of the Government. The socially excluded need someone to stand up for them in the face of this corporate bullying. I look to the Minister for support in this matter.

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7.41 p.m.

Baroness Greengross: My Lords, I want to begin my maiden speech by thanking noble Lords on all sides of the House, as well as the Officers, for their extraordinarily warm welcome to me and for their efforts to make me feel at home and to give me guidance and advice. I am beginning to learn about the conventions of the House and even a little about the geography, although that is more difficult.

Having worked so closely with Peers and Members of the other place for many years in my role as Chief Executive of Age Concern, it is a great privilege and honour now to be a Member of this House. I intend to play a full and active role here in the years to come, especially once I retire from Age Concern later this year. I am particularly grateful for the interest and active support that the House has given over the years to issues concerning social inclusiveness and the protection of disadvantaged people across the spectrum of society.

When thinking about what I was going to say this evening, I was reminded of a very distinguished Member of your Lordships' House, the late Lord Seebohm. He was an inspiration to me. He was Age Concern's first president and I met him in the late 1970s when I joined the organisation. As a former chairman of Barclays Bank, he combined the skills needed to head up one of our leading banks with an independent, keen and objective mind. His report on the future of social services was in its time both radical and innovative. That balanced approach to life was reflected in his very modest lifestyle and caring and tolerant approach to everyone who was privileged to know him.

My many years in the field of ageing have, I hope, given me some understanding of the needs of older people, whose numbers are growing rapidly and whose position, power and aspirations are changing as the balance of our population shifts dramatically. I have worked continuously to change negative attitudes towards ageing and older people and to improve the quality of later life. I also previously worked with vulnerable children and young people, combined with an academic career and a period in the commercial sector here in the UK and across Europe. Therefore, my interest in social exclusion spans most of my lifetime and all areas of major public policy.

Therefore, I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, secured this short debate to call attention to proposed practice in this particular aspect of banking. I believed that it was an appropriate early occasion to make my maiden speech to your Lordships. I, too, am concerned that many banks and building societies might seek, or seem to be intending to seek, to levy quite heavy charges on users who do not hold accounts with them. We live in a technological age where funds are accessed increasingly through the "hole in the wall", as the noble Lord, Lord Graham, said, rather than over the counter.

Customers who lack transport or who have mobility restrictions could be particularly disadvantaged. What should mean greater flexibility and choice will be no

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choice at all for people who have only one cash machine within easy reach of where they live. We must ensure that a new and vulnerable public--those who previously kept their money under the mattress or in the teapot and who now benefit from the security of a bank account for the first time--are not disadvantaged by punitive charges every time they withdraw some of their modest income or savings.

Our older population, which is growing fast, is not homogeneous. It encompasses both the richest and the poorest people in our country. Older people own 80 per cent of the wealth that is now in private hands, but almost half of our pensioner population still relies on the state pension and benefits for almost all its income. A new and substantial proportion of older people is also on the margin and would be among those hardest hit by the Link proposals.

Approximately 80 per cent of older people now have bank, building society or post office accounts. Of course, many will hold accounts with Link, including the Post Office Girobank itself (now part of the Alliance & Leicester). No doubt many more will do so in the future as the Post Office moves to automated payments. Might they in effect be charged for obtaining their state pension, especially if they live in a rural area or a small town where there is only one bank or post office with a cash machine? It would be bad enough to be charged for withdrawing other savings but it seems totally unacceptable to be charged to obtain one's pension. It is not difficult to understand why older people will see a charge of, say, £1 or £2 to withdraw £20, or even their weekly state pension, as totally unacceptable.

Well over half of all state pensioners still collect their pension in person in cash from their local post office every week. The sub-post office, which has long been important to many people, is also under threat and in our rapidly changing world it is very important that everyone should be ensured easy and equitable access to their own precious savings and income.

However, I also wish to be positive. It is dangerous to see people who are deemed to be socially excluded by policy makers as those who do not have bank accounts, do not know what the Internet is or do not want to learn something new when they are 65 or 75. Unprecedented longevity is a triumph to be celebrated at the start of the new millennium. Older people are not as technophobic or afraid of the modern world as the stereotypes would suggest. Those same older people who do not have a bank account might just also be surfing the net or learning a new skill. Only last week the DfEE announced a competition to find Britain's oldest learner. That is also why Age Concern's own Baby Boomer Bistro--the on-line chat room which we run--is an enormous success. Older people are the boom sector for IT. They are the fastest growing group of users--a fact recognised by the Government with initiatives such as the Learning Network, part of the Better Government for Older People project. This is all about social exclusion, especially of older people, but not because they need to be socially excluded.

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Finally, the Government must be congratulated on beginning to address the needs of those who are socially excluded, as must be the noble Lord, Lord Graham, on making the connection with financial services. The Social Exclusion Unit itself had to be reminded that social exclusion does not stop at the age of 60 or 65. In fact, it can worsen with isolation and loneliness in later life. Therefore, I hope that these efforts will not be derailed by others, whether it be banks which charge people an undue amount or, indeed, anything to withdraw their own cash when post offices are closing down in local communities.

We have all heard that the Link network is to go ahead with charging and that it can decide on the level of charge to be imposed. If I were allowed to be somewhat more controversial than I am tonight, I should say that that is a missed opportunity and a very sad occasion.

I hope that, as Lord Seebohm and others sought to have, we may be able to have a similar balanced approach in welcoming the new technological innovations but we should build in appropriate safeguards to protect vulnerable people and, in particular, those who are older, so that they can all, whatever their socio-economic status, echo the recent words of the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, when he said:

    "I am an older person and I am proud of it".

7.51 p.m.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, it is a great honour to be chosen to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, on such a fine maiden speech. In the course of her life and work, the noble Baroness has achieved a great deal for other people. As a youngster, she championed the cause of the aged. As head of a single-issue pressure group, the noble Baroness is notable for having spoken to other groups about other interests widely separated from her own and for having listened to them. She has thereby built a constituency of interest and common cause which has enabled her to make an enormous difference to the lives of many people. It is a great pleasure that, as the noble Baroness enters the age at which she can benefit from all that she has done, she is allowing us to benefit from her presence here. We look forward to hearing from her many more times in the future.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, on giving us the opportunity for this debate. He draws our attention to a matter which is crucially important; that is, that we should make sure that the structures of our society, both government and commercial, are such that they will allow access back into the mainstream of our society for people who find themselves excluded or on the edge of it.

In the cause of regulation and consumer interest, we have allowed the banking industry to develop a particular form of monopoly. That is not necessarily bad. We have gained a lot from the restrictions which we have placed on people's ability to open and operate banks in this country. But any form of monopoly such as that necessarily has potentially bad consequences

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for the consumer and must be monitored. I am delighted that the Government appear to be doing that, but it seems to me that we should all accept that that is the right thing to do--that we should keep an eye on what banks are doing.

The banks in this country have a long history of soaking the private customer so that they can lose large sums in property or financing overseas governments. There is nothing new about the recent events but it is something of which we should be particularly aware because, whereas in the old days the poor were not so dependent on having bank accounts and being able to use them, now, in modern society, that is changing and it is becoming much more essential for anyone who wants to get on in the world we are creating to have access to banks and to have reasonably priced access to banks.

The principal ways in which people interact with banks these days are by having a card, which we are not discussing this evening but it is another source of problem--the difficulty which some people experience in getting even a debit card--and once you have that card, being able to use it to get cash out of your account at a reasonable price. That obviously involves any up-front charge made for the use of the ATM but also the charges back in the bank which are imposed on the management of the account.

If we allow the banks to impose what amounts to totally unreasonable cost penalties on the poor for using their accounts, we are making it much more difficult for those people to enjoy the sort of life we wish them to enjoy and which, in many cases, we are paying our taxes so that they should enjoy; and we are making it a great more difficult for them to find the extra pounds, the extra money, to make their lives better which surely should be the object of all our policies.

What do we need to do in this case? It is quite clear that we need to limit charges for the use of ATMs to an amount which is reasonable. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, said very clearly that the figure is 30p. That is what banks charge each other. They would not accept that charge unless they thought it was reasonable. They all have experience of using ATMs. To suggest that something which is effectively costing 30p should be sold onto the customer by what is often, locally, a monopoly supplier at £1.50 or £2.50 is completely unreasonable and is the sort of thing to which the competition authorities, very properly, should take a severe attitude.

We must also make sure that the ability to own and operate ATMs is widely available. These things are not generally a danger to customers so long as they are operated by someone reasonable. But it can prove quite difficult to persuade someone to put an ATM in a local shopping centre or a small town. My local small town in Hampshire--Liss--has long tried to get an ATM but no one will provide it because there are only a few banks which might be interested in providing it. Even if there is one, it will only be one. If it is a Barclays ATM, why should customers all be forced to change their accounts to Barclays so that they are not charged

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£1.50 every time they take money out of the machine? In a way, access to ATMs under those circumstances becomes a service which is bundled with all the other services of the banks to the great disadvantage of the customer who should be able to choose to buy one service from one bank and different services from different banks.

We need to make charges, such as they will be, transparent. They should be evident on the outside of the machine and not something which you discover in the blink of an eye two-thirds of the way into a transaction on a rainy February evening.

I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm that we should be able to deal with this matter by regulation, because banking practices will change and change fast. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that regulations can be made under existing legislation or, if not, that we shall find an early opportunity to legislate on this matter.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I too am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Graham for introducing this debate. I am grateful to him for two reasons: first, because he has introduced a most interesting topic; and, secondly, because he has provided us with the opportunity of hearing an excellent maiden speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Greengross. It was thoughtful, entertaining and most enjoyable. I too am most grateful to the noble Baroness for all her work in making--shall I say?--my approaching old age more bearable and tolerable.

I too find the attitude of the banks towards cash machines--particularly, the big four clearing banks--confusing. Obviously, there is disagreement among the Link operators. Some, like Nationwide, are against charges; others, like Barclays, are for charges. So my hope for this debate is that we may have a little elucidation and explanation.

I understand that, today, the outcome of the meeting in Harrogate was that from 1st January 2001, there will be charges which will be fixed by the owners of the machines. I must confess that I am somewhat surprised. I was under the impression that we had moved on from shareholder value as being the main concern of large companies. I thought that we had moved into an era when firms realised that people want to deal with an official business which is also decent and fair; and that companies want to exhibit their decency and fairness not only by supporting charities and cultural activities but also by exhibiting some idealism themselves when providing goods and services to their customers.

That is why, in recent years, companies have set out their stakeholder principles to demonstrate their ethics and integrity and their loyalty to stakeholders. That is--I use the modern term--the modern concept of branding. I am at a loss to understand why the big four banks seem to be ignoring this point and seem to be indirectly reintroducing bank charges through the use of cash machines. Have their soaring profits made them careless? My noble friend Lord Graham gave us

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the numbers. This seems dangerous ground. The economics of banking are changing. The socially excluded, too, can become banking customers.

I understand from recent figures that only 22 per cent of current account customers change banks. That may well have been true in the past. However, in the recent past we had far less telephone banking than today. We did not have banking with supermarkets and chain stores. Supermarkets now offer cashback. How long will it be before garages, for instance, offer cashback or operate their own cash machines? Surely sooner rather than later cashpoint machines will do other things than provide cash and statements.

What about Internet banking? The report issued by PriceWaterhouse Coopers dated 25 February forecast 50 new Internet banking offerings this year alone. It seems to me that these new kinds of service are more likely to help the socially excluded. They will not be helped by the main clearing banks, which are interested in their better-off customers. That is understandable. They can sell to such customers all kinds of other products: mortgages, health insurance, life assurance, home insurance, pensions, hire-purchase and travel arrangements. You name it; they will sell it.

The socially excluded cannot afford most of those products. That is why the banks are not really interested in them. Like the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, I hope that the regulators will take a look at the Harrogate agreement. The consumer panel of the FSA should be concerned about the high prices charged to customers. Mr Don Cruickshank has said that a reasonable charge would be 15p to 30p instead of up to £2.50, which apparently can be charged. The Office of Fair Trading should be concerned about banks discriminating against different classes of customer. They seem to be discriminating between one set of users of cash machines--their own customers--and another set of users--other banks' customers.

With impeccable timing, upon which my noble friend Lord Graham should be congratulated, The Competition Act comes into force tomorrow. The Competition Commission should be interested in exploring whether the agreement is contrary to Article 84 and should be registered. I suspect that some smart lawyers have advised that, as each cash machine owner fixes its own charges, the agreement is not anti-competitive. But regulators also need to decide whether the larger banks, which own most of the cash machines, are guilty of market abuse by discriminating, with high charges, against the small banks, which own far fewer machines.

While all that is going on, customers can take their current accounts elsewhere, and will probably do so, encouraged by the new sources of cash being made available to them. Meanwhile, it will be nice to see the banks being more transparent about cash machines. I understand that there will be a warning to customers about to use a machine telling them what the charges will be and giving them a chance to change their mind.

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I welcome that as a better deal for customers. I also welcome the promise by Co-op Bank and Nationwide to refund any charges.

I suppose that banking is becoming a public utility, such as water or a public service like the Post Office. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, implied that. It is recognised as such in California, where it is subject to a kind of universal service obligation. There is an obligation to give access to banking for all, as has been asked for by my noble friend Lord Graham. We may eventually see that here if the free market does not operate. Free market competition eliminated bank charges. I hope that the Harrogate agreement will not be a way of reintroducing them.

8.4 p.m.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde : My Lords, I join fellow noble Lords in welcoming this short debate. I particularly thank my noble friend Lord Graham, whose timing is impeccable in view of the decision taken today. That is no surprise to me. I was on the Back Benches when he was Chief Whip. His timing was certainly extremely helpful in many a debate then.

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