Sam Dunn: The harsh truth about ATMs

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The Independent Online

The spread of cash machines that levy a charge of between £1.50 and £2 has long troubled MPs and consumer groups. Of particular concern is their prominence in deprived communities, both urban and rural.

A Treasury Select Committee inquiry last year forced ATM operators to take new measures to make their withdrawal fees clearer. But fee-charging "cash machine creep" has continued to ring alarm bells.

By the end of December, nearly 43 per cent of the UK's 57,908 cash machines were charging a fee - up from 40 per cent in 2004.

The market was opened up back in 2000 to allow independent operators to put fee-charging machines in areas that had never before benefited from a cash machine. Now it seems the alarms are ringing loud enough for the Government to start paying real attention. Ivan Lewis, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, last week announced an ATM summit to thrash out the issue once and for all. Banks, consumer groups, independent ATM operators, MPs and the Government's own Financial Inclusion Task Force will all be invited to air their views.

Mr Lewis's decision took many in the industry by surprise; the Treasury had previously offered only to review the situation.

The summit will doubtless include passionate arguments. Independent operators will stress the benefits of giving people access to cash where there was once none. Consumer groups will warn of high- street banks selling off existing free ATMs to the independents. And MPs will highlight the plight of low-income families.

Some 43 per cent of cash machines now charge, but they represent just 4 per cent of all money pulled from the hole in the wall.

And while some have called for ATMs to be colour-coded, Link, the body behind the electronic network, already requires fee-charging idling screens to tell users clearly how much they will have to pay.

This is a debate about choice when it comes to getting hold of your own money. The losers are those people who have no alternative but to use fee-charging machines. They are often elderly and on low incomes, without access to transport to reach a high-street bank with a free ATM.

I hope Mr Lewis can fashion a solution. But short of government intervention, it's hard to see how those who can afford it least won't have to carry on paying the most for their own money.

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