The Bank of England has said it is "committed to cash" in light of the findings of the independent Access to Cash Review, which has warned that 17% of the UK population, or 8m adults, would struggle in a cashless society.
The review was commissioned in response to the rapid decline in cash use for everyday transactions, leading to growing concerns that people unable to readily use or access cash could be left behind in an increasingly digital society.
It stated that over the last ten years cash payments have dropped from 63% of all payments to 34%, while the use of debit cards has increased, and contactless payments have “skyrocketed”, nearly doubling in 2017 to 4.3bn transactions.
The number of cash withdrawals made via ATMs is also declining, leading to machines becoming uneconomical to maintain and manage, and resulting in their removal.
Natalie Ceeney, chair of the Access to Cash Review, said there were dangers in “sleepwalking into a cashless society”.
“Millions of people could potentially be left out of the economy, and face increased risks of isolation, exploitation, debt and rising costs,” she stated.
“We haven’t taken a view about the merits of a cashless society. We haven’t concluded that it’s impossible, or even undesirable. But our research shows that if we fail to plan and prepare for it properly, a cashless society would do significant harm to the millions of people who would be left behind.”
The Bank of England said it welcomed the report, and announced that it will be convening all the relevant stakeholders “to develop a new system for wholesale cash distribution that will support the UK in an environment of declining cash volumes.”
Chief cashier Sarah John said: “We are committed to cash. Although its use is declining, many people, including vulnerable groups, still prefer to use cash. It is important that everybody has a choice about how they make payments. The action we are announcing today will help to support cash as a viable means of payment for those who want to use it.”
The BoE is the sole issuer of notes in England and Wales, while the Royal Mint issues coins.
Despite the trend towards cashless transactions the total value of banknotes in circulation has risen steadily and was at almost £68.9bn last year. By comparison in the year 2000 the total was £26.2bn.
Security printing giant De La Rue, which took over the Bank of England’s banknote printing plant in Debden in 2003 and prints currency under contract for the Bank, commented: “The Access to Cash report demonstrates the continuing importance of cash as an inclusive, secure method of payment in the UK.
"As the world’s largest designer and commercial printer of banknotes, De La Rue is a keen observer of payment trends and in our view a balanced approach to cash versus digital payments is an absolute necessity.”
The £20 note is the most popular note by volume, with 2.1bn in circulation last year according to the BoE’s statistics. Last year De La Rue began printing the new polymer £20, which will enter circulation in 2020.
The Access to Cash Review also pointed out that most consumers valued having cash: “Our research suggests that, for some, it is the physicality of cash which is important. You can hold it and feel it, count it, and parcel it up into bundles. And when it’s gone, it’s gone: you can only spend it once.
“This can also give cash an emotional value that digital doesn’t have, whether it’s a bundle of notes in your purse on payday or tucked into a Christmas card. It’s something people get passionate about – as we see every time there’s a new face on a banknote.”