17% of the UK’s population — about 8 million adults — would struggle in a cashless society. To meet the needs of everyone it is essential both that public services give people the opportunity to pay in cash and that government help private and third sector services to take cash payments. Government can play a role in helping make this happen by broadening the scope of its payments platform and team, GOV.UK Pay, to support cash.
The need for access to cash
Cash use has declined in recent years. It has become ever easier for most of us to buy things using other methods — for example credit and debit cards, direct debits, or through online payment services like Paypal or Apple Pay.
In 2017 direct debits overtook cash as a form of payment. These other payment methods are more convenient both for the people making payments and for people taking them — there is no pesky cash to count and send to the bank at the end of the day. Some call for a rapid transition to a ‘“cashless society” where cash would not be used. Left unchecked it seems likely that it will become ever harder to use cash as shops, buses, taxis, pubs and even public services favour these new payment methods as it saves them money.
In 2018 an independent review of access to cash, the “Ceeney Review” was set up in the UK. It published its final report in March 2019.
The review said that 17% of the UK’s population — about 8 million adults — would struggle in a cashless society. The reasons are complex. The report talks about multiple reasons including lack of access to the internet (particularly in rural areas), people without bank accounts, physical and mental health, financial difficulties, or fear that the computers that run the other payment methods will break.
The review found that 51% of consumers felt it would be a good idea to change the law so that all shops and services had to accept cash.
The factor with the strongest correlation to use of cash was not old age, but poverty. While a cashless society might be convenient for many it would be a struggle for some of the most impoverished people in our society.
Meanwhile the public also had a range of concerns about a cashless society including the needs of those who have to use cash but also including other concerns like a loss of privacy and the loss of the ability to choose how to pay.
That does not mean that a cashless society is necessarily the wrong vision for the future, it means that any transition needs to happen over a period of time, that governments need to provide support for those impacted, and that in the intervening period we need to preserve access to cash.
The Ceeney Review’s final report said that:
“we recommend that essential government services and monopoly and utility services should be required, through their regulators, to ensure that consumers wishing to pay by cash can do so, either directly or through a partner“
In response to this UK government said that it would:
“safeguard the future of cash and ensure its availability for years to come”
That sounds sensible.
The Government Digital Service (GDS), was set up back in 2011 to help implement the then UK government’s digital by default strategy. In July 2015 GDS announced that it would make payments [to government] more convenient and effective. This led to the announcement later in the same year of GOV.UK Pay — a free and secure online payment service for government and other public sector organisations.
This service is now part of the Government Transformation Strategy and a component in what people call government-as-a-platform. It is used by a growing number of public services in central and local government.
GOV.UK Pay is a better experience for many citizens, and for the people building public services that need to take payments, but it does not handle cash. It continues the same trend as we see in the private sector. Making it easier to handle online payments while neglecting the needs of people who need to pay in cash.
It provides no direct benefit for the millions of people who can’t (or won’t) use either online payments or online services. As well as the Ceeney Review’s finding of 8 million adults who would struggle in a cashless society, the Financial Conduct Authority reports that there are 1.3 million UK adults without a bank account. Unless a friend helps they have no way to pay money to a public service that cannot take cash.
In a response to an Freedom of Information request GDS has said that in 2015 they undertook user research on a prototype that integrated GOV.UK Pay with a cash payment service
“but not with users who typically rely on cash payments”
That was a bit silly. You need to pick an appropriate audience to test with.
Other government services (DWP and Insolvency Service) also did usability research with the actual target audience. These services felt it was a valuable payment option.
Unfortunately cash and the needs of the people who use it were not prioritised. Back in 2015 the focus was on online payments and the people who use them.
Government has a strong moral, and often a legal, responsibility to make public services work for everyone. GDS have always said that they want to benefit everyone and have an emphasis on accessibility. The Ceeney review, and government’s positive response to it, provide good reasons to revisit the strategy for GOV.UK Pay.
Broadening the scope of GOV.UK Pay to support cash
To deliver on its commitment to safeguard the future of cash government will have to make a range of interventions. Some of those will include making sure that the public sector can handle cash payments. I expect that the current GOV.UK Pay team will be able to provide a lot of help in meeting that objective while still delivering on their historic focus of better online payments.
But the benefits will not only be felt by people using public services. By making it easier for people to pay government in cash government can start to change the cash payments system for the better.
Perhaps government’s payment experts will discover that to get continued good coverage of places to pay in cash that:
- the government will need to make it easier to pay for any public service in the local authority offices that are in town centres across the country
- they should provide support to make it easier for shops to offer cash payment services like Paypoint
- they can develop and share good practice for how to handle cash payments
- there are ways to share good practice across the organisations that process cash payments to help make face-face payment services better
- or the many many other things that will emerge with some good open-minded research into the needs of people who use cash
These things will also provide benefits to people paying cash to private and third sector organisations too. That is good. Government’s responsibility goes beyond what we traditionally think of as public services that need payment — things like paying our council tax, buying a fishing licence, paying for a car parking space, or getting a passport.
Governments have a responsibility to the whole of society. Governments should be investing in public goods that benefit everyone. Access to cash will make it easier for more people to buy food, travel around and enjoy their lives. Government should make it easier for people to use new online payment methods, but it also needs to preserve access to cash for the people who need it.
Broadening the scope of GOV.UK Pay to support cash will help government do what it said it would do when it responded to the Ceeney review, and make things a little bit better for everyone.