Banks will have to offer customers “reasonable access to cash” under a draft bill to be tabled by the Department of Finance next year.
The requirements could include having a minimum number of cashpoints per town or region and are expected to bring independent ATM operators under Central Bank supervision.
The move was recommended in the Department’s long-awaited review of retail banking and was accepted by Cabinet yesterday.
It comes after a public outcry recently forced AIB, which is majority state-owned, to row back on a decision to remove cash-handling facilities, including ATMs, from 70 branches.
“People like, or indeed, need to use cash, and uncontrolled changes resulting from individual commercial decisions are leaving them behind,” Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said. “This isn’t fair and it could be damaging to financial inclusion.”
Lenders are now being asked to keep access to cash deposit and withdrawal facilities at December 2022 levels until the new “access to cash” bill becomes law.
The new law may contain “quantitatively based” targets, such as a minimum number of ATMs per town or region, Mr Donohoe said.
“The Government might decide it is appropriate that, inside particular areas – that citizens or communities above a certain level – should have access, in a point, to the ability to deposit cash and the ability to withdraw cash.
“We will have to consider whether that is appropriate here in Ireland for that to happen, given our population densities, and given the fact that we now have a more concentrated banking sector than we had a year ago.”
The review does not call for a minimum threshold for bank branches. “I believe that would be an exceptional intervention into commercial decisions that banks make,” he said.
Separately, officials are looking into extending cash rules to other firms or sectors, such as newsagents or cafes, under a new payments strategy due in 2024.
It is understood there are concerns that if more shops and cafes go cashless, it could upend the rules that will soon be in place for banks.
Adrian Cummins, head of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, said the Government should stay out of individual firms’ business decisions.
“We would be seriously advocating against that,” he said. “It needs to be evidence-based and they would have to do an impact assessment [to see] what are the accidental consequences.
“Certain coffee shops I’ve seen, that’s their marketing ploy: card only. That’s their own business decision themselves. We’re not advocating that society should move 100pc at all to card. Cash is still part and parcel of it.”
Duncan Graham, managing director of Retail Excellence, said any moves need to be “customer-led, rather than retailer-led and government-led”. “There is still, in very many sectors, a big dependence on cash,” he said.
Vincent Jennings, head of the Convenience Stores and Newsagents Association, said it was a “social obligation” to accept cash that might “possibly” require legislation.
The review suggests the Government “consider and consult on whether to legislate pre-emptively to give the Minister for Finance the power to require certain classes of firms, sectors or sub-sectors to accept or facilitate (to an appropriate level) the acceptance of cash”. Public bodies should be required to do so, it said.