One in five bank branches in Northern Ireland have been closed
One in five major bank branches in Northern Ireland have closed over the last two years, a consumer watchdog has revealed.
The Consumer Council also disclosed that Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of people without bank accounts in the UK.
Council policy director Aodhan O'Donnell told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee: "We know there are certain areas where two or three banks have closed with a massive impact on access.
"We are of the view that you don't have to live in a rural area to be isolated, there are towns and villages where people are losing access to their branches and that is going to have a massive impact, it is going to hinder financial inclusion."
The Consumer Council said 13% of customers in Northern Ireland lacked an account, compared with 4% in the UK as a whole.
In written evidence, the watchdog said even consumers with bank accounts still had "issues getting access to their cash free of charge in certain areas".
Vauxhall MP Kate Hoey, who serves on the NI Committee, asked if the Consumer Council respected "the right of the individual to be paid cash ... and not to have things paid into bank accounts".
Julie McCurley, Head of Policy for Money Affairs, said "customer choice" was important.
To which Miss Hoey responded: "Why should we all be forced to have bank accounts? Most people think their money's better under their bed or mattress still."
Meanwhile, the Consumer Council called on banks and other providers "to continue to consider installing more free to use cash machines in deprived areas of Northern Ireland and to maintain existing facilities".
It said the "outstanding areas" that needed tackling were in Newry, south Armagh, Craigavon and Pomeroy.
It also highlighted the fact that no banks in Northern Ireland currently operated "an account opening process for prisoners pending release" and called on banks "to assist in the resettlement of offenders back into the community".
The Consumer Council said the number of branches of the largest four banks – First Trust, Danske, Ulster Bank and Bank of Ireland – reduced from 252 to 199 (21%) in the last two years.
In January, Ulster Bank said it will close in the region of 20 branches and sub-offices on the island of Ireland this year.