Sam Dunn: Choice is an illusion in 'deserts' for free ATMs

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The Independent Online

Speak of "public convenience" and you might still catch a whiff of Carry On rumpus - all spluttering giggles and sideways glances.

Speak of "public convenience" and you might still catch a whiff of Carry On rumpus - all spluttering giggles and sideways glances.

Yet it's no laughing matter when cash machines, one of our greatest modern public conveniences, come at a cost.

A parliamentary inquiry into fees - it typically costs £1.50 to £2 to withdraw cash at charging ATMs - has shunted these machines out of late-night clubs and kebab shops and into the spotlight.

Much of the brouhaha swirls around the likelihood that, by the end of this year, half of all ATMs will charge (the figure is 40 per cent today). And amid all the fire and brimstone raining down on the companies behind the charging machines, two distinct camps have been set up.

On one side, as we report on page 31, lie the Treasury Select Committee of MPs and the Nationwide. The building society, an avid campaigner on the subject, says 1,600 free ATMs now have a charging counterpart within 100 metres and has proposed a cash machine "code of practice". This would insist they display prominent fee warnings and cap the withdrawal charge.

On the other side lie critics who pooh-pooh the perceived threat - and the code - as overdone. This is all about customer choice, they say. People can always vote with their feet. And, they report, people do: some 97 per cent of all ATM transactions are still made free of charge at high-street bank machines.

Both sides claim to have consumers on their side. Charging ATM operators say their customers happily continue to come back, yet according to the Nationwide, nine out of 10 people object to having to pay.

Much of the debate has focused on the championing of choice, but there are some for whom this notion is little more than an illusion.

Where a local post office has closed its doors - whether in a city or the countryside - people who depended on it to withdraw benefit and pension payments for free often have no choice now but to use a charging ATM.

And when people living in these free-cashpoint deserts can't easily get around - in the case of the elderly, the poor or those with disabilities - this concept of choice begins to stick in the throat.

Whenever a charging ATM is installed in a community that previously had no machine at all, its operators talk up the new service.

After all, surely a charging machine is better than no machine?

Instead of residents paying to use a bus to access their money for nothing, they can now insert their card and get their hands on the cash instantly - for a small fee.

That's an option that didn't exist before, they say. And to be fair, it is.

But it's one that, over time and through cumulative use, will cost a fair amount of money. And it seems grotesquely unfair that those least able to pay are the ones who end up having to do so.

Those who either don't need to carry much cash or don't have much in the first place shouldn't be paying a £1.75 fee for a £10 withdrawal.

The moral imperative for free cash machines is a tricky issue - and expensive, banks will cry - but there is a strong argument yet to be explored for some sort of bank-sponsored public service network that is free of charge.

Cash machines were developed - and exploited - by banks as part of a great push to encourage us to move away from branch use (expensive) towards plastic (which is much cheaper).

But the arrival of charging operators over the past five years begs questions about the banks' attitude and the size, usefulness and purpose of the UK's ATM network.

Cash machines clearly have a cost but maybe it's time the consumer stopped paying it.

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