Leaders’ Questions.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 701 No. 4

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Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  This is a bad day for the 760 employees of Bank of Scotland (Ireland). It is a bad day for the bank’s 300,000 holders of variable mortgages. If Bank of Scotland leaves Ireland, it will take with it competition and choice. We cannot return to the old days of the cosy cartel that operated between Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks.

Eighteen months ago, the Taoiseach’s Government promised a restructuring of the Irish banking system. In respect of these 300,000 holders of variable mortgages and others, what does his Government now propose to do to introduce choice and competition to the banking sector?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  Yesterday I recorded our regret at the announcement of the loss of these jobs in Bank of Scotland (Ireland). I made the point that I had been assured that all customers of the bank would be looked after and would not be disadvantaged by the changes. Bank of Scotland (Ireland) will continue to have a presence in Ireland, albeit with the loss of 760 employees now gainfully employed who will no longer be part of the operation after July. It is also important to point out that the bank indicated it sees itself continuing as an independent entity.

In the context of having a viable and competitive banking system, the establishment of NAMA was to ensure that banks are freed of stressed assets and can access cash to lend on to businesses and households. That will be achieved by replacing property related loans with Irish Government bonds which will strengthen the balance sheets of the banks and increase their capacity to access liquidity in the financial markets and, if necessary, through euro system liquidity operations, making them better able to lend and support businesses and the Irish economy.

The contentions from the Opposition have varied from time to time but——

Deputy Bernard Allen: Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  Never mind the Opposition. You are in power.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  ——it always has been my view that if we are to have proper credit access into the economy and a functioning banking system the NAMA operation has to be, and will be, proceeded with.

Deputy Enda Kenny: Information on Enda Kenny  Zoom on Enda Kenny  That is a bad day made even worse by the response of the Taoiseach. What effort is the Government making now to introduce competition and choice for consumers in this country? Did the Government reject any offer, if such were made, by Bank of Scotland [878](Ireland) to be part of the third banking force? Based on allegations now in circulation, has the Taoiseach had any indications that there might be thousands of additional bank job losses because of other international banks pulling out of this country? These are serious matters and they require the immediate attention of Government.

When does the Government propose to publish its paper on restructuring the banks?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  These matters have the full attention of Government at all times albeit not always with the support of Members of the House. That is a matter for debate in respect of all the initiatives we have brought forward, all of which have been supported internationally.

The next phase of restructuring the banking system relates to the valuation of the distressed assets and their removal to the NAMA operation. Arising from that is the recapitalisation of the banks affected by the removal of the distressed assets. As the Deputy will know, that is under way at present. The Minister intends to take a comprehensive approach to all of that and in the coming weeks and months the Government intends to proceed on the basis that the current valuation method used for the NAMA operation will be completed.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I shall pursue the matter of the 760 people who are to lose their jobs and become unemployed in a employment market in which there are few, if any, other available jobs for them. When did the Government first hear this bank was going to close its branch network? Was there any meeting between any Minister and a representative of this bank to discuss its plans? When the chief executive of the bank informed the staff yesterday that they were to lose their jobs he said other options had been under consideration since last summer. What were those other options? Did they include a suggestion of this bank being part of a possible amalgamation or rearrangement with other banking institutions in the State?

What is the Taoiseach’s understanding of what will happen to the bank’s business now that its branch network is to be closed? In particular, what is his understanding of the position of mortgage holders in this bank? We recall that this was the bank which arrived to great cheers, with a buccaneer approach to lending. It was the first to give 100% mortgages, it introduced the tracker mortgage and, apparently, has 7% of the mortgage market. What is the position of a person who has a mortgage with this bank and who may have difficulty repaying it, as many people now have? Do we know what is the disposition of the bank with regard to mortgage holders? I refer, for example, to a mortgage holder who had access to a branch and will not now have that access, in terms of talking with somebody in the bank about renegotiating mortgage terms. Has there been any discussion with the bank in respect of those matters?

Will the Taoiseach tell the House when the Government found out about the bank’s intentions? What meetings, if any, did it have? What actions does the Government contemplate to deal with this matter?

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  My understanding is that the Government was notified yesterday under the Redundancy Acts with regard to the proposed job losses of 750 workers from this organisation. With regard to the strategies being devised by Bank of Scotland in terms of its business model for Ireland, these would be a matter under consideration by the bank itself. On the question of what will happen with regard to people with mortgages or accounts with the bank, my information is their accounts remain unchanged and they will not be disadvantaged by the changes. If people have difficulties with regard to repayment of mortgages with this organisation, contact should be made with the organisation and arrangements made to facilitate those people in the circumstances in which they find themselves, just as happens with any other financial organisation. Clearly, yesterday’s announcement marks a withdrawal by Bank of Scotland (Ireland) from its operations in Ireland, to the extent that 750 people will lose their jobs. [879] The retail network will be affected by that. We must now see what arrangements will be made. We are assured that all customers will be looked after and will not be disadvantaged by the changes.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  I find the Taoiseach’s reply incredible. Is he telling us that the first the Government heard about this bank’s intentions was yesterday when it sent a redundancy notice to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment? This bank has been on the radar quite significantly, not only in respect of its approach to lending. Arguably this bank’s lending practices contributed to our banking problem. Throughout the past year, it has been engaged in a very high profile advertising campaign, offering deposit interest significantly higher than that of competitor banks. This should have brought it to the attention of somebody in Government. Over the past 12 months the banks have been the central issue on the political agenda. Is the Taoiseach telling us that nobody in Government talked with this bank at any time over the past year?

Apparently, Mr. Higgins, the chief executive of the bank, said when announcing this to staff yesterday that the closure of the branch network was something that was under consideration since last summer and that he had hoped to avoid it by exploring other options. I interpreted what he said in his statement yesterday as meaning the bank was involved in some kind of discussions with Government in respect of the “third force” arrangement for an amalgamation of banks. However, it seems from what the Taoiseach has said that there were no discussions at all with the banks.

How have we got to a situation where, in a year when banks have been the centre of the political agenda, no Minister or Department was in contact with this bank with regard to its intentions? The bank has a significant share of the mortgage market and has aggressively competed for deposits. Now it has announced it will close its entire branch network to the disadvantage of its customers and to the personal, income, family and job loss of its 750 staff. Was the Government asleep while this bank was considering withdrawing from retail activity and closing its branches? Is the Taoiseach saying that nobody in Government met representatives of this bank over the course of the past year? Even it had never thought of closing its branch network, one would think somebody in Government — in a year when nothing was being discussed but banking business — would have met and talked with what was a significant player in the banking industry.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  In his first question the Deputy asked when we were officially notified of the redundancy announced yesterday. I have explained when we were notified. With regard to bank operations generally, the Department of Finance and the Central Bank monitor the banking situation on an ongoing basis. This credit institution is not part of the State guarantee.

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton  Zoom on Joan Burton  It has a State banking licence.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  It is a subsidiary of a large bank, which as we all know has suffered significant losses. Clearly, the banking strategy and business model for that bank is changing, not just with regard to its subsidiary, but also its parent. As people will know, the British Government has taken a significant stake in the parent bank. The situation from our point of view is simple. It is that this announcement was made yesterday. We very much regret the fact this has happened. The Minister for Finance is in the process of restructuring the banking system and has provided a State guarantee which is the means by which we were able to stabilise the system during the course of the past year, something which was opposed by the Labour Party. We have passed the NAMA legislation, which is a prerequisite in order to take the stressed assets from the banks so that we can improve credit access into the economy through the banking system. The [880]changed economic realities and the changed economic situation here have meant that other banks, which are not part of the State guarantee, have had to take certain decisions in respect of their business operations here and some 750 jobs are being lost, which is a matter of great regret and concern. However, during the course of this week, some 250 jobs are being created in the general financial services area. Yesterday, Dun and Bradstreet announced 100 new jobs, with the potential to grow significantly. Alcatel-Lucent from Bell Labs has announced 70 new highly skilled research jobs——

Deputy Joan Burton: Information on Joan Burton  Zoom on Joan Burton  Over five years.

The Taoiseach: Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  ——and Gala Networks announced 100 new jobs the previous week. While this major announcement of job losses by the bank is a matter of concern and regret for all of us, it reflects the economic and banking realities as they exist here.

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