I was in Parliament the other week, in a Committee Room, listening to a lot of promises being made by the LINK ATM Network.
The promises boil down to the claim by LINK that they will never let any town be without an ATM.
Do you remember the “we won’t close the last bank branch in town” promise? It didn’t last - and nor will LINK’s.
I have been in Committee Rooms in Parliament quite a few times.
The first time was 13 years ago. I will never forget the occasion. My appearance before the Treasury Select Committee (TSC) in February 2005.
The TSC was “investigating” cash machine charges.
The Chair of the TSC, John McFall , had taken a particular interest in this subject, perhaps enjoying the media profile it gave him. Being Labour Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire didn't normally make the incumbent a star of "stage and screen".
McFall put that right by conducting a number of high profile Inquiries (Inquisitions?) through his role in the TSC.
I had volunteered to appear before the committee. I was very angry that Independent ATM Operators were the focus of the investigation. I knew what the TSC did not; without the Independents, the UK public would not in future enjoy a decent ATM service and,
with it, convenient access to cash.
My own company, Bank Machine, had installed the very first UK Independent ATM in 1998, at a SPAR shop in Birmingham. That ATM and the many others that had followed had been warmly welcomed by the UK Public. Finally, they had local access to the vital cash
they needed to live their daily lives.
The workings of the Treasury Select Committee the day I participated were a farce. I was happy enough with my own contribution, refusing to be bullied by McFall, but, in general, he got away with behaving like the very loud man in the pub. Using his blaring
voice was his main technique, coupled with not letting anyone else speak uninterrupted for more than 10 seconds.
And, of course, it worked. Supposedly mature men crumpled under fire from the Chair. In particular, the management of the LINK ATM Network behaved like naughty schoolboys who had been stealing from the Tuck Shop. Pathetic over-states the quality of their
LINK simply surrendered, agreeing to quite ludicrous signage and messaging "rules" for pay-to-use ATMs. Of course, LINK management would probably have fought much harder if their masters at the time,the High Street Banks,had been put at risk - but they didn't
care if Independent ATM Operators had their businesses damaged. After all, they hadn't really wanted the Independents to be allowed to join LINK in the first place.
I was furious , especially with John McFall. I was a member of the Labour Party at the time and I wrote to the Prime Minister, Chancellor of Exchequer and the General Secretary of the Labour Party, complaining about the unfair criticism leveled at Independent
ATM Operators by the TSC. I pointed out that Bank Machine operated a growing number of free-to-use ATMs and was working to provide a wonderful service to the British Public. I told all those I wrote to that my company and the great team of people that worked
for us deserved praise, not criticism.
My letters got me a meeting with Ed Balls, then working as a deputy to Gordon Brown in the Treasury. I cannot remember all the details of the conversation but, safe to say, Ed danced around the subject, a skill he was going to show again many years later.
Later, I met with John McFall himself, in his office at Westminster. At that meeting, he admitted to me that he couldn't get banks to do anything.
No wonder McFall picked the soft target of Independent ATM Operators, relatively small companies that could be safely demonised and were not "too big to allow to fail", which newspapers always claim is the status of major banks.
By the way, I left the Labour Party some years later, mainly because my offer to install free-to-use ATMs at Labour Constituency Offices didn't get a response of any kind,despite endless chasing by me. I realised then that most politicians are good at talking
about the Public Interest, but largely useless at doing anything practical.
McFalls antics at the expense of Independent ATM Operators later helped earn him the accolade of Which? "Consumer Champion" and no doubt also aided his elevation to the House of Lords, as The Lord McFall of Alcluith.
Here is the truth.
In damaging the Independents, McFall put at risk the future of organisations which have subsequently recovered to fill the awful gap in public services created by disappearing bank branches and bank ATMs.
Today, no thanks to McFall or the Labour Party Leaders who did nothing to make him behave in a balanced manner, Independent ATM Operators run nearly 40,000 of the 69,000 ATMs in the UK - and the majority are FREE-TO-USE!
Last year, when the five major UK banks REMOVED nearly 2000 ATMs, the Independents McFall might have destroyed INSTALLED 1300 - and all of them FREE-TO-USE!
Being charitable, Lord McFall may have merited the title for something else he did........
Today, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee is Nicky Morgan. Nicky doesn’t “grandstand” and seems genuinely to have the Public Interest at the forefront of her thinking.
I hope Nicky Morgan steps in to stop the planned arbitrary cuts to the LINK ATM Network.
In the week when a British actor won an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, the country is in need of a new figure of strength and integrity to lead us forward. Can Nicky Morgan be that leader? I believe she might well be - and she can prove the
point by demanding that arbitrary cuts in LINK are banned, pending the outcome of a full public inquiry.
Should Nicky Morgan become the financial inclusion hero the country needs, there will. of course, be no big cigar - merely the knowledge that the Public Interest had been well-protected. Then the accolade of Consumer Champion might well, for once, be deserved.