BANKS are using mobile branches as a “get out of jail free card” as the network of branches and cash machines in Scotland shrinks, MPs have been told.

The comments came from Pete Wishart, the SNP chair of Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee, as it began an inquiry into access to financial services in Scotland.

They followed a report from Which? yesterday, which found that a third of Scottish bank branches had closed since 2010 – falling from 1625 to 1015 – and that 290 ATMs had shut in Scotland in the last year alone. Wishart said: “It is abundantly clear that regulations have not been strong enough to maintain the ATMs and banks throughout rural Scotland that communities and businesses rely on.

“Which? told us this morning that a third of Scottish banks have closed since 2010. Banks are using provision of mobile branches as a ‘get out of jail free card’, but these services are clearly insufficient.

“We heard that strong regulation is essential and that it should be on a statutory footing. We were particularly concerned to hear the difficulties that vulnerable groups experience from a lack of face-to-face bank contact.

“We also heard that the future of Scotland’s tourism industry depends on reversing the trend of ever-reducing access to cash.

“Banks continue to turn a blind eye to these very worrying consequences of their insistence on closing banking facilities.

“They must halt these closures or risk the suffering of Scotland’s rural businesses and tourism industry being on their watch.”

Derek Young, a policy officer with Citizens Advice Scotland, told the committee that a number of customers relied on ATMs as a way of accessing banking services.

He said: “Face-to-face advice is the cornerstone of our delivery model and although it is intensive and sometimes expensive to produce buildings and premises around Scotland, advice and services are desired in a number of different ways.

“Face-to-face advice is important within our service because it enables the building of trust and credibility between somebody accessing services and the provider.

“The quality of communication you have is enhanced by body language, facial expression, tone of voice.

“It demonstrates that you’re committing empathy and investment of time and effort in the person who has come to you … financial issues, in particular debt, is the second largest issue upon which people access Citizens Advice network and that’s true for every single bureau around Scotland. That’s the value that people place in having direct face-to-face communication.”

Sheena Boyd, director of Scottish Rural Action, said the problem was much worse in rural areas, because “if you don’t have broadband you can’t access your banking”.

James Daley, a member of the Access to Cash Review, said the banks had not been working together on a co-ordinated closure plan.

“Market forces have been driving the story up till now,” said Daley. “But they don’t like the fact that week in week out they are getting hammered in the press for closing branches and looking like they’re out of touch with societal needs.”