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At a Big Tent Digital event last night (10 November) Guy Opperman MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, spoke with a number of experts on financial inclusion about how to make sure people aren’t left behind as the UK morphs into a cashless society.

Polly Mackenzie, Chief Executive of think tank Demos and founder of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, was first off to argue that the everyday reality of people across the country needs to be taken into account when decisions are made about digitising banking and abandoning cash:

“The fight to retain cash is going to be a losing battle. But we must not leave the people for who cash is a lifeline behind. We need to build new technologies that are more inclusive and adapted.

“This does take time and it is expensive. So often, we see how much money can be saved by moving onto digital services, but we ignore the benefits of saving a bit less money through investing in slower more inclusive transitions.”

Mackenzie went on to call it “madness” and “completely stupid” to not take have inclusivity at the core of financial digitisation, warning that not doing so could contribute to negative political developments too:

“We cannot change the fact that this is our future, but we know the political consequences of leaving people behind in periods of social change. What’s clear is that people want digital inclusion to be addressed and they don’t want an unjust society. This has to be part of an agenda to level up, it’s just got to or it won’t work.”

Martin Coppack, Director of Fair By Design, a think tank focused on ending the poverty premium, was also critical about how decisions surrounding the abandoning of cash are being made, claiming they are based on a one-dimensional view of the average consumer:

“People who make decisions about what is fair are very much people like myself, who are middle class and have gone through certain systems.

“Put simply, we need to design these policies focusing on inclusion, not exclusion. It’s about going to the end consumer to identify issues and work backwards from there.

In terms of where the responsibility for doing this policy work currently lies, Coppack was disillusioned: “I’m finding it hard to see who leads this agenda and has responsibility for financial inclusion in the UK.”

Sian Williams, Director of Innovation and Policy at the Toynbee Hall charity, joined the choir of voices urging for more government-involvement in the digitising of finance to make sure banks and financial firms keep the impact they have on local communities front of mind:

“Digital transformation is possible, but it is hard work but takes investment and collaboration.

“We need to make sure that ATM providers that impose charges on their machines are aware of the impact that has on the community,” she said, and went on to criticise the lack of action from banks too: “We’re also seeing more people on fluctuating income, so having flexible ways of paying is necessary. However banks are not adopting this.

“There are too many areas where the solutions are being left to the market, when it is a social good we need to focus on. We need more regulatory frameworks to ensure the needs of all people are met.

“The market will not deliver.”

In response to the largely negative depictions of how the move to a cashless society is impacting certain communities, Guy Opperman MP wanted to highlight how adoption of new technologies has soared in recent years and that much is being done to include more people in the new economy:

“My glass is half full. Government is looking at this problem and implementing great work to support access for everyone.

“It is quite clear that many people are moving away from physical banking and going online. There are fewer people unbanked than five years ago by any stretch of the imagination.”

He also urged all attendees to contribute to the Government’s call for evidence on the subject of financial inclusion, which will be the basis of future policy proposals.

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