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PAC urges Bank of England to investigate “missing” £50 billion of sterling notes

4 December 2020

Lax attitude to whereabouts of bulk of sterling cash supply, or ensuring it remains accessible to households and high street, gives twin causes for concern.

In a report published today, Friday 4 December 2020, the Public Accounts Committee says oversight of the production and distribution of notes and coins is “unclear” and “fragmented” across responsible authorities, who have been “behind the curve” in ensuring access to cash for consumers and businesses, and are failing to understand or act on the clear dangers of hardship if the UK continues its “precipitous” move towards a cashless society.

The reduction in the number of facilities from which to obtain cash, and in the number of businesses that will accept cash, can have a negative impact on the lives of many people, including those in some rural areas, vulnerable and digitally excluded people. Responsibilities are spread across HM Treasury, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Payment Systems Regulator and the Bank of England but no one body is in overall charge of making sure that people and businesses have access to cash.

Conversely, demand for sterling notes has steadily increased, but the Bank of England does not “appear to have a convincing reason for why the demand for notes keeps increasing” or any real understanding of where approximately £50 billion of issued sterling notes are, or being used for: only that this increasing demand for cash notes in the face of their declining use is “a trend being seen with other major currencies”.

The Bank estimates that 20%-24% of issued notes are used or held for cash transactions. This leaves about £50 billion worth of issued bank notes that may be being used overseas for transactions or savings, or held in the UK as unreported household savings or for use in the shadow economy. The Bank of England doesn’t know. There are implications for public policy and the public purse if a material proportion of the large volume of banknotes whose whereabouts or use are unknown are being used for illegal purposes.

Chair's comments

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Our run up to Christmas and Christmas shopping is obviously very different this year, but it highlights how increasingly difficult it has become to, for example, choose to support a small local business by paying it in cash – generally the cheapest form of payment to accept.

“In many areas where you can use cash you’d be hard pressed to find it, at least without paying an ATM fee that may be a substantial percentage of a small withdrawal – yet making frequent, small withdrawals can be a key budgeting tool for those on low incomes, and least able to afford those fees.

“Conversely, £50 billion of sterling notes – or about three quarters of this precious and dwindling supply – is stashed somewhere but the Bank of England doesn’t know where, who by or what for – and doesn’t seem very curious. It needs to be more concerned about where the missing £50 billion is. Depending where it is and what it’s being used for, that amount of money could have material implications for public policy and the public purse. The Bank needs to get a better handle on the national currency it controls.”

Further information

Image: PA