Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 has three core objectives. First, it amends the Credit Union Act to allow for general meetings, which are prohibited under current health regulations, to proceed; second, it amends the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012 to increase the number of consecutive terms of office members of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council may serve from two to three; and third, it amends the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender, which will allow the State to comply with certain provisions contained in the SURE loan agreement at EU level.

The Credit Union Act 1997 currently requires credit unions to have their annual general meetings, AGMs, for the financial year to 30 September 2020 completed by the end of January 2021. Under current health guidelines, general meetings, including AGMs, would not be able proceed in practice. The changes proposed in the Bill will allow for greater flexibility to manage general meetings on a permanent basis. These changes, importantly, will allow credit unions to make changes to their rules if they so wish.

Some of these amendments will be temporary and relate directly to changes required to enable general meetings to proceed during the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, the board of a credit union can decide on the form of a general meeting, similar to the provisions in the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Act 2020, notwithstanding the rules of the credit union. Should these legislative changes not be made and the public health measures continue to restrict large physical gatherings, the Central Bank has the power, in limited circumstances, to direct credit unions to postpone the holding of their AGMs for a period not exceeding nine months, where it is necessary to do so. The Central Bank has an identical power to defer special general meetings of credit unions. Boards could also issue information in written form to members or publish financial updates on their websites or both. However, these outcomes would be suboptimal as members would not be able to express their right to vote or call the board of directors to account or both.

The main amendments proposed in the legislation are: to allow the option of virtual general meetings, which provide access for remote attendance and the option of electronic voting; to provide credit unions with the option of availing of proxy voting for a temporary interim period to allow for the directors to determine the form of the general meeting, notwithstanding the credit union rules; to allow for AGMs for the year ending 30 September 2020 to be delayed until April 2021; to allow for the interim period to be extended by order of the Minister for Finance; to allow the Minister to make further regulations relating to general meetings to be held by the use of electronic communications technology; and to allow the directors of a credit union, in exceptional circumstances, to cancel the holding of a general meeting at any time prior to the holding of the meeting.

While the Bill is similar in some respects to the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Act 2020, it takes into account the different nature of credit unions and makes some permanent changes to encourage greater member engagement at general meetings in the future. For example, the Bill provides for credit unions to hold partly or fully virtual meetings on a permanent basis and provides greater flexibility for credit unions to determine how they manage voting.

The Bill will amend the Schedule to the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012 to increase the maximum number of consecutive terms which a member of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC, may serve from two to three terms, before becoming ineligible for reappointment. This amendment is proposed to address exceptional continuity challenges the council is currently facing and to provide for greater flexibility for future appointments. Members of the council are required to possess a certain skill set and a highly technical level of expertise. With members currently restricted to serving just two consecutive terms of office, the pool of candidates available for every new open competitive process is a particularly narrow one and an ongoing challenge.

The five-member council is likely to have three vacancies by the end of the year. In addition, the two members who will remain in situ are relatively new appointees. The continuity challenges which face the council constitute exceptional circumstances and require the proposed change to the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012. Once passed, the change will help to address this considerable continuity challenge and allow for existing members to serve a third consecutive term.

The Bill will amend section 67 of the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender, which will allow the State to comply with certain provisions contained in the EU support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency, SURE, loan agreement. Section 67(7) of the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act sets out those institutions which are facility lenders to the State. While the definition of "facility lender" currently includes the European Financial Stability Facility and European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism, which are part of the EU, these references would not cover the E as lender under the SURE regulation and loan agreement. The technical amendment to section 67(7) extends the definition of "facility lender" to include the EU as lender to the Irish State.

The Government has applied for a loan of €2.474 billion under the EU's SURE instrument. This loan will cover eligible expenditure on short-term work schemes, that is, the majority of the expenditure on the temporary wage subsidy scheme.

I look forward to hearing Deputies' views during the debate, which will allow credit unions to hold virtual AGMs associated with the financial year ending September 2020, will allow each credit union to decide on the appropriate mechanism for voting at general meetings, and will extend the time in which AGMs can be held from January 2021 to the end of April 2021.

Over the past week, we received a great deal of interest from Oireachtas Members on all sides, supporting the passage of the Bill to allow the AGMs to be convened as soon as possible. The Bill will also amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012 to allow for an increase in the number of terms that can be served by a member of the lFAC. It will also amend the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the EU as a facility lender, which will allow the State to comply with certain provisions contained in the SURE loan agreement.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Táim iontach buíoch as an deis chun labhairt ar an mBille seo. Tuigimid uilig trasna na bpáirtithe an tábhacht a bhaineann leis na comhair chreidmheasa agus an obair atá á dhéanamh acu ar fud an oileáin. Tá sé sin cloiste agam na céadta uair. Tá tacaíocht faighte acu ó Shinn Féin agus ó Theachtaí trasna na bpáirtithe agus Teachtaí Neamhspleácha le fada go leor. Caithfimid níos mó a dhéanamh ó thaobh na comhair chreidmheasana agus tá deiseanna ann iad a láidriú agus a neartú chun go mbeidh ról níos lárnaí á imirt acu i sochaí agus eacnamaíocht na tíre. Is féidir leo déileáil fosta le cuid de na deacrachtaí móra atá againn, go háirithe ó thaobh cúrsaí tithíochta agus a leithead sin. Chun é sin a bhaint amach, teastaíonn athrú intinne agus athrú meoin ó thaobh an Banc Ceannais agus an Roinn Airgeadais. B’fhéidir gur sin plé do lá eile. Inniu táimid ag déileáil leis an mBille atá os ár gcomhair. Tá trí phríomh chatagóir sa Bhille seo agus beidh Sinn Féin ag tabhairt tacaíochta dó. Sé sin ráite, tá leasuithe curtha chun tosaigh againn chun an Bille seo a neartú agus a láidriú agus le plé a bheith againn faoi chuid de na hábhair imní atá ag comhair chreidmheasa difriúla ar fud an Stáit, chomh maith le leasú ó thaobh an IFSC de.

The legislation has three core objectives: first, to amend the Credit Union Act to allow credit union general meetings to proceed virtually, as they are currently prohibited under Covid-19 health regulations; second, to amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act to increase the maximum number of consecutive terms an IFAC member can serve from two to three; and third, to amend the Credit Institution (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the EU as a facility lender.

I will focus on the first two objects. I commend the credit union movement and the services it provides to communities right across the island. It is an all-Ireland movement that is embedded in our communities. There are 317 credit unions across the island with 3.6 million members. It has a track record of delivery. For more than 60 years, our credit unions have been an underutilised asset on the island. Although not relating to this legislation in particular, as we emerge from the pandemic, and while there is uncertainty around the future of Ulster Bank, we need to enhance the role played by credit unions in the financial market. There is a total asset book of €20 billion, and with that comes great potential for the credit union movement to support our communities and economy through SME and mortgage lending and involvement in the delivery of social housing. For that to happen, a change in mindset is required in both the Department of Finance and the Central Bank. During my time as an Oireachtas Member, and particularly as spokesperson on finance for Sinn Féin for more than a decade, I have witnessed the support across the political divide for the credit union movement. Collectively, we can ensure the necessary supports are put in place so that they can provide a stronger role in society and the financial market.

I also wish to refer to legislation I introduced some years ago on moneylenders. Money lenders are a scourge on society, particularly in their charging of an annual percentage rate, APR, of up to 187%. Particularly at times of hardship, something that the pandemic has unfortunately brought to many households, moneylenders are advertising their wares, selling high-interest loans with immoral rates of interest. A Bill was before the House and is now before the finance committee for pre-legislative scrutiny. The committee has heard from stakeholders. As sponsor of the Bill, I am delighted to have read the submissions that have been received in support of the need to place a cap on the interest rate that can be charged by money lenders. I believe it is a role that the credit union has filled and can continue to fill. Initiatives were introduced in previous years, some by local credit unions, to ensure that short-term small lending is available to families and households who need it at times of pressure.

The financial year for credit unions falls at the end of September.

The AGMs subsequently occur between October and January, as required by the Credit Union Act 1997. As a result of the current public health measures, it is impossible to proceed in practice with physical AGMs or special general meetings. In addition, the uncertain direction of the public health measures into the future makes planning for a general meeting difficult due to the time lag between the notice of a meeting being sent to members and the holding of the meeting.

The purpose of this legislation is to allow for credit unions to hold meetings remotely that are required under the Credit Union Act. Our support for the legislation is wholly contingent on our support for the credit union movement itself. The Credit Union Development Association, CUDA, and the Irish League of Credit Unions, ILCU, have engaged with the Department of Finance and the Oireachtas finance committee on the general scheme of the Bill. Both organisations welcomed the provisions set out in the general scheme. However, concerns have been raised regarding specific provisions in the Bill. I want to focus on two of those concerns. The first regards the role of the nomination committees and how they are affected by this legislation. The second relates to the issue of proxy votes.

The Bill provides for the introduction of pre-meeting voting. The nomination committee is one of the key committees established under the Credit Union Act. Its purpose is to ensure that nominees to credit union directorships meet the highest standards. This is an essential part of what could be described as the fitness and probity regime for credit unions As part of the process, the nomination committee shares a report with members who, in turn, elect directors. Under the credit union rules, this report is shared in advance of any voting. The new subsection 78A(4)(a) of the 1997 Act, as inserted by section 6 of the Bill, suggests that voting will be allowed to take place before a nomination committee sends its report to members. This issue has been raised with the Department by the credit unions. I would appreciate clarity in this regard and for their concerns to be addressed.

The second concern is in regard to the proposed introduction of proxy votes. In 2016, the Department's credit union advisory committee published its review of the implementation of the recommendations in the report of the Commission on Credit Unions. The committee noted proxy voting as a specific concern for stakeholders. Serious issues have been raised with the Department regarding these proposals. Among the issues is that the introduction of proxies could lead to conflicts of interest or situations where undue influence could be exercised on voters. Concerns have also been raised about the possibility of one individual acting as a proxy for several members, which could lead to undue influence being exercised by a single individual. One of the fundamental tenets of the credit union movement is that there is one vote for each member. These concerns have been raised with the Department. I have tabled amendments dealing with both these issues and I would appreciate if the Minister could address the concerns raised.

Section 14 relates to IFAC. This provision has been brought forward to avoid an awkward situation for the Minister. IFAC was set up as part of a wider agenda of budgetary reform after the Fianna Fáil Government destroyed our economy. It was set up to scrutinise Government budgetary policy. Under the 2012 legislation, the council has five members, with no member allowed to serve more than two four-year terms in a row. Since the beginning of this year, the council has been reduced to four members, after the former chairman, Seamus Coffey, finished his term. This is despite the fact that the legislation passed by this House requires a vacancy on the council to be filled within six months. Another two members are due to finish at the end of the year, reducing the number of council members by two and leaving three vacancies. One of the members, the current chairman, Sebastian Barnes, has been on the council since 2012 and is coming to the end of his second four-year term.

This section seeks to extend Mr. Barnes's membership of the council by a third term, or another four years. To be clear, Mr. Barnes has served the council with distinction. However, it is not appropriate to extend his term of service and the provision to that effect has been introduced simply to avoid embarrassment for the Minister. It is important that fresh voices and new perspectives are brought to the council. That was the whole point of the two-term limit. Such limits exist in other jurisdictions to safeguard the credibility of budget watchdogs. The limit should not be undone and the credibility of the council should not be undermined simply because the Government has neglected the council.

I want to conclude by again commending the credit union movement on the continuous service it provides to members. I hope we can allow the movement to continue to play an enhanced role in the economy.

Mar a dúirt mo chomhghleacaí, cuirimid fáilte roimh chuid den Bhille seo. Is rud fíorthábhachtach é ionas gur féidir leis na AGMs tarlú agus tá sé sin fíorthábhachtach do na daoine atá ag brath orthu.

I welcome this Bill, which makes provision for the holding of certain meetings by credit unions via remote access. We have discussed in this Chamber the importance of credit unions being able to hold their AGMs. It is something that has been raised with me by a number of constituents and several credit unions. It makes absolute sense that this is being dealt with now, in light of the very real risk to human life posed by Covid-19. It will allow, by way of amendment to the Credit Union Act 1997, for attendance and voting by proxy at certain meetings.

We know the key role that credit unions play in communities. There is a credit union beside the estate I live on and I have been a member of it since I was a very small child. The credit union is a financial centre for many communities. That is especially the case at this time, when we are looking at the possibility of Ulster Bank leaving the market and the closure of many bank branches. When branches close, there is a loss of local knowledge relevant to funding for loans and so on. Local knowledge is key when making decisions on the granting of loans. I have spoken to the manager of a credit union who raised the concern that its AGM, which would usually cost approximately €30,000, with the production of booklets and all that kind of thing, may now carry an additional cost of €5,000 to €8,000 under the provisions in the Bill. It is necessary and important that the AGMs go ahead but it is also important to be aware of such concerns.

There is a need to look at the credit union sector in a broader sense. We need to look at what credit unions can do, what activity they might be able to branch into and the very real crisis they are facing. From speaking to staff in several credit unions in recent months, they have made it clear that we can no longer ignore the scale of the crisis facing credit unions. Nor can we ignore the opportunity for the sector to step into the breach if the likes of Ulster Bank were to leave the market and there are ongoing closures of other bank branches. Those closures can have a significant impact on communities. Regulations have been placed on the sector that have put credit unions at a competitive disadvantage relative to the banks. That has stymied their ability to lend and is strangling their ability to give customers the facility to borrow. Lending regulations introduced just a few months ago allow credit unions to lend only 7.5% of their assets for secured loans such as houses, with larger credit unions being possibly allowed to lend up to 15%. This was brought in by the Central Bank as an advancement of regulation. According to the credit union staff to whom I have been speaking, it is far from it.

We need to consider whether it might be better for the credit unions to set their own lending limits. That may not be the way to go but we certainly need to look at what they can lend. Obviously there must be limits, but the situation must be looked at because the credit unions feel they are stymied. More than 50% of the consumer credit market is for mortgages.

How can credit unions ever offer a real alternative when this restriction is in place? The Central Bank is increasing the risk for credit unions by not allowing them to have more balanced loan books. We hear that credit unions do not have the nature, scale or complexity to offer mortgages. We need to ask whether they could broaden their activities. We know the great impact they have on communities and their local knowledge, which is very important. Draft figures show that credit unions collectively made a surplus of approximately €65 million in the year prior to 30 September. On the other hand, Permanent TSB reported a pre-tax loss of €57 million in the first six months of the year. Ulster Bank is reported to have plunged into loss and may be preparing to exit the market. In a very unfortunate development, Ulster Bank refused to appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach to explain its actions and what it intends to do. Credit unions clearly have the capability and capacity to step into the breach. It is great to see community-led organisations that can help their local communities.

Credit unions are also at a competitive disadvantage with regard to the regulations governing their investments. The foreword of the Central Bank's feedback statement to its consultation paper on potential changes to the investment framework for credit unions stated: "We are strongly of the view that lending and the provision of services to members should be the key drivers of sector viability". It notes that revised investment regulations would necessarily impact on the level of return. The Central Bank thus acknowledges that investments by credit unions are safe, but they are still unable to hold the same reserves for investments as for loans. That has a real impact on ordinary people.

Furthermore, I refer to the share caps credit unions are obliged to implement. A credit union in the south of Dublin has restricted members' holdings to €20,000. Another one in north Dublin has restricted its members' holdings to €15,000. Members are unable to access a mortgage through their credit unions, while a young person cannot save for a deposit on a house with their local credit union. That is quite concerning, because credit unions can have a great relationship with their customers.

My colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, mentioned IFAC and the proposed third term for members. That is a concern. IFAC has served us well, and this is not a reflection on any of its members. However, a limit of two terms was set for a reason. We should stay within those limits.

This Bill is welcome. We need to examine the credit union sector and its potential. The Minister of State has previously spoken of the importance of the sector, but we have not seen bang for our buck in that regard. We need to look at what credit unions can do, especially in light of the large number of bank branch closures. The credit union sector has always been very good to its members and has always exemplified that favourite word, "prudence". Credit unions have always been very careful. We need to support them however we can and they are currently telling us that they are facing a huge crisis.

This Bill is generally welcome but some elements require improvement to meet the needs of members, boards of management, managers and staff of credit unions. Efforts to facilitate the safe holding of AGMs in the context of Covid-19 are welcome. Credit unions are democratic. Their workings are based on the one member, one vote principle that is fundamental to co-operative community-based organisations. As such, it is important to look in greater detail at some of the changes proposed in this Bill.

Section 11 deals with the introduction of proxies. This is a very radical departure from the current situation in credit unions throughout the country. It is concerning that this proposal, which is frankly poorly thought out, is being shoved in on a permanent basis in an emergency Bill designed to meet the particular needs of this moment. There are concerns that some of the provisions of the Bill would enable malign manipulation. For example, I am a little surprised that it allows for the accumulation of many proxy votes under the control of one person, who may not even be a credit union member. The absence of a measure to preclude vote clustering is cause for further concern. For example, the Bill could enable voting blocs to be assembled and deployed for or against candidates for positions on credit union boards, dividend payments, mergers, etc. Considerable discussions on the subject of mergers are currently ongoing between credit unions throughout the country.

The introduction of bloc voting could make manipulation of outcomes easier for persons with criminal intent, including money laundering by outside organisations that might attempt to take over control of the credit union. It could lead to a host of other manipulations and dodgy dealings. This proxy voting proposal has not been drafted on the basis of what I would describe as reality. For example, section 11 will introduce a new section 82A(6) to the Credit Union Act 1997. This limits the time credit unions will have in advance of a meeting to verify proxies and set up systems for electronic voting to 48 hours. If we are to proceed with proxies, which the Minister seems intent on doing, we need to revisit the idea that only 48 hours will be required. The section also inserts a new section 82A(7), which allows for the electronic delivery of proxies. This will oblige election officials to authenticate documentation that may not be original. It will thus be even more difficult to detect fraudulent documentation and nefarious actions in the context of credit union AGMs.

The new section 82A(4) effectively precludes the board from putting measures in place to exclude voter fraud. Such precautions have been omitted from this Bill. The board is limited in the measures it can take to verify the identify of the voter and ensure the security of the system. This area will require further focus.

This is a hurried, ill-considered and potentially dangerous section and the Minister of State should consider withdrawing it. I understand that a working group on credit union legislation is currently in place and is meeting with the Department. It would be better if this measure was referred to that group for more consideration, given the fact that it consists mainly of credit union associations. I accept the urgent need to allow credit unions to hold their AGMs for the reasons the Minister of State outlined.

We have several other areas of concern. The Bill proposes to introduce pre-meeting voting. This is fundamentally undemocratic and arguably runs counter to the whole concept of fitness and probity. As the sector regulator, we have seen how hard the Central Bank has worked to promote fitness and probity among directors and senior management in all banks and credit institutions. The nomination committee is one of the key committees established under the Credit Union Act 1997, as amended. Among other things, it is charged with ensuring that nominees to credit union directorships meet the highest of standards across a range of areas.

The report of the nomination committee to the members, in other words the electors, is a key element of this process. Under credit union rules, it must be delivered in advance of voting by secret ballot in the elections. The Minister now seeks to change this by providing for voting in advance of the AGM, as covered in the proposed new section 78A(4)(a). This raises yet another dilemma and conundrum. The administration needed to prevent a member, or a proxy, afforded a pre-AGM vote from voting again at the AGM would be substantial. This is a real issue. Were the actual meeting to be held online, sophisticated communication and voting technology would have to be developed and deployed with much time spent in the interval, between the close of vote and the opening of the meeting, to avoid affording some members two votes. That is a real and practical challenge. Consideration should be given to withdrawing the concept of pre-AGM voting and that the whole issue be referred back to consultation over a limited period with the representative associations, notwithstanding our acceptance of the urgency of action in this area to allow AGMs to take place in the current health context.

The proposed new section 78A(7)(a), to our amazement, fails to mention the requirement that any electronic system deployed should also provide for both show of hands ballots and secret ballots, as well as how the integrity of the ballot and the one-person, one-vote principle will be ultimately provided for. This is a fundamental issue and it ought to be addressed. It should be borne in mind that it is difficult to see how, on a technological basis, clustering of proxy votes could be accommodated in such situations. There are a range of different technical, security and electronic challenges with which we would be faced if this legislation is passed as presented.

I note the Bill has a technical amendment which enables Ireland to draw down SURE scheme funding of more than €2 billion directly from the European Union. The Bill also provides for the extension of term limits of members of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC.

When the SURE scheme was announced last spring, I saw it very much as an affirmation that the idea of the social Europe was back in vogue. It was an immediate response by the EU acknowledging that member states would need direct financial supports to help workers and businesses whose jobs were in jeopardy and who may need significant investment in terms of upskilling and retraining. From the Minister of State's earlier remarks here and in the Seanad, this money will be used to pay some of the bill for the temporary wage subsidy scheme and not for training and upskilling purposes. Insofar as I can establish, this is permissible under the scheme. It would be helpful, however, if the Minister of State could confirm the current status of our application to draw down these funds and that the European Union has sanctioned the use of these funds for this purpose.

The Bill started its journey in the Seanad several weeks ago. The Minister of State and his officials will be aware of the real concerns expressed by my colleague, Senator Marie Sherlock, in a helpful and measured way in respect of the ambitions of this legislation to extend term limits of members of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. We are now learning of the exceptional continuity challenges facing the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, in that if its enabling legislation is not amended to allow term limits to be extended, it may soon in practice be the case that this statutory body may not be able to make a quorum at all. That is a dangerous situation to be in. If it cannot function at that level, then it cannot meet the statutory remit set for it by the Oireachtas in 2012. I understand one vacancy has been open for the guts of a year. From where I am standing, there does not seem to be a shortage of capable, independently minded macroeconomists in our country who could perform a valuable service on the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. Is it the case that of those applying, the criteria cannot be met by those candidates? Is it the case that we do not have anybody applying for the positions at all?

I would be interested to know when the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council started to raise these issues with the Department and how far back the ability of this body to function came into question. When was the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council first in contact with the Department? How concerned was the Department by this situation? Members are being asked to amend legislation at the eleventh hour to allow term limits in the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council to be extended to allow the organisation to do its job. I hope this issue has not arisen because of neglect from the Department or, at least, lack of interest in the council's workings and its functions.

I hope and think the Minister of State will agree that the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has served us well since 2012. It has fulfilled an important role with its evidence-based function by independently assessing and critiquing Government policy and fiscal policy more generally. It has also helped to lift the veil on fiscal policy and to make the process as to how fiscal policy is arrived at more accessible for members of the public and more widely understood. Heaven knows that more than most, this country has suffered from what one might describe as groupthink. Last week marked ten years since we were forced into the arms of the troika, lost our economic sovereignty and all that went with that. Turnover in any body is important, as is its independence. A 12-year term, which will be envisaged if this legislation is passed, is not advisable and could potentially lead to institutionalisation, herd mentality and groupthink.

This is not a criticism of anybody. All Members are huge admirers of the work that the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has done, both corporately and the individuals who have served this country's policy development well. Would the Minister of State not be better minded to extend the number of appointments that can be made to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and make changes as to how the board operates to ensure consistency and continuity of membership as some members come and go? For example, the Minister of State might take a look at the Low Pay Commission, which has many more members than does the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. When I was establishing the Low Pay Commission, one matter foremost in my mind was to guarantee term limits were short enough to ensure a turnover with new and fresh thinking. I also wanted sufficient numbers of people on the commission to ensure continuity and consistency and that it was representative. That might be a more elegant solution to the problem than the one proposed in the Bill. We might look at extending the number of members who can sit on the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council rather than taking the approach that we ought to extend term limits to deal with a problem we have now. It might be better to take a more fundamental look at the legislation and broaden it out to allow more people to sit as members of this important organisation.

It will become increasingly more important as we move forward. The Minister of State will be aware of the criticisms from both the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council and the Parliamentary Budget Office in terms of the lack of budgetary scrutiny, the scrutiny of Estimates, Supplementary Estimates and so on introduced this year in the context of the vast amounts of money the State is providing to businesses to keep the doors open and people in work, as well as the vast resources we are pumping into State services in the context of the current emergency situation. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council is an important organisation. It should not be neglected but should be looked after and prioritised. I suggest the Minister of State does that, not by extending term limits but by ensuring the legislation enables more macroeconomists with expertise to sit on the board at any given moment in time.

It is now two weeks until Christmas. While some people are wondering how they managed to survive the year of Covid-19, others are wondering how they survive every year within the confines of this Bill. I am anxious that the lending capacity of our credit unions be extended in our communities. They are bedrocks of opportunity and protection. I am equally anxious about the effective politicisation of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council.

I am not referring to its fine members but to the Minister's attempt to legislate for a third consecutive term for one of them. Term limits are a key aspect of good governance. I disapprove of what is happening.

The reduction of the council to a fig leaf for the Minister's embarrassment is indicative of the Government's attitude to the public overall. This week, more-than-well-paid judges are getting an increase on the grounds that they are entitled to it, yet the Government is demanding that student nurses put their lives on the line for €50 because, in its opinion, that is all they are entitled to. The Government forgets that almost everything in people's lives is predicated on what we do in here. Where they live, how long they live, their healthcare, whether they can keep a roof over their heads, whether they can keep their sight, whether their children can go to college, and life and death are all decided within the confines of this House at the pressing of a button – Níl or Tá.

Homelessness is rising. Outside this House, too many people are looking to the Muslim Sisters of Eire and other soup kitchens to be fed. The term "soup kitchen" cuts deep for us in Ireland. The soup kitchens, rack rents, evictions and bailiffs of a former generation feature again in this one. This time, the tent cities in Cork and Dublin do not arise via Trevelyan or Peel but via Bilderberg and Davos. Privilege meets power. Under the Government, privilege is power. It is also a question of access and influence - a text, a nod, a wink, conversations with friends, a confidential State document reordered and leaked, sneak peaks and Supreme Court seats. Why? It is because those concerned are entitled. It is time to do better and to do things differently.

Hundreds of thousands voted for Sinn Féin precisely to do things better and differently. For their vote as democrats, some have treated them as lessers, lowers, political lepers, social pariahs, and literal and political illiterates, even while news was breaking of the leaking of documents by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar. All the Fianna Fáil Members were queueing up here to declare confidence in him although most of them had none. This morning, the Irish Examiner had another report on the Tánaiste leaking information, this time in regard to protected disclosures. We are aware that Fianna Fáil does not have confidence in the Tánaiste, because no confidence was deserved. To keep change out, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael buried the hatchet. They buried it deep into those they believe to be unentitled, but change is coming. Those same people will vote time and again until they see themselves and their interests represented in government and in finance Bills, as they should be. That is their right and entitlement in a republic.

I thank Deputy Cronin for that contribution. Conscious of the fact that she is a new Deputy, I have to point out that Second Stage speeches on legislation are meant to focus on the legislation. However interesting her contribution might have been, it did not focus on credit unions, which are the subject matter of the Bill. Anyway, that is for future reference.

I want to speak specifically about the business in hand, the legislation.

The Social Democrats welcome the legislation and support it. Clearly, there are three main provisions: to facilitate credit unions to hold meetings virtually; to increase the number of consecutive terms of office of a member of the IFAC; and to include the EU as a facility lender. Essentially, this is tidying-up legislation. It addresses a number of administrative issues. The Social Democrats do not have a difficulty with that.

I want to make a few comments on the section regarding credit unions. I note some of the amendments that have been tabled in this regard, particularly No. 4, which relates to the need to ensure secrecy in election votes, and amendment No. 8, whereby proxy votes need to be submitted up to seven days in advance of an AGM rather than 48 hours. Both of those amendments have some merit. I hope the Minister of State might consider them. They would improve the legislation.

The legislation has been welcomed by credit unions. They would certainly favour both amendments but the bottom line is that the legislation is enabling legislation. It does not bind credit unions to operate the proxy system in the way that is set down. Overall, the legislation is very much welcome. I will not delay the House any longer. I am happy to support the Bill.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The credit union movement has been a huge force for good across the Thirty-two Counties, in almost every small town in addition to the bigger cities. I commend the staff and volunteers of credit unions, who have been instrumental in helping individuals and small business owners to keep the show on the road throughout the pandemic. I commend the leadership on its constant development of new ways to help its members. The credit unions are rivalling the big banks with their innovation. They are offering online access to accounts. In recent weeks, they have made Google Pay and Fitbit Pay available to their customers.

We need to give the credit unions a greater role in our banking system. They are embedded in our communities and are best placed to help the local areas, of which they are an integral part.

Some small changes can be made to make this happen. Credit unions should be given greater capacity to provide mortgages. We need to legislate for a more ambitious future-proofed vision of mortgage lending. This should include a change to the current regulatory position to allow credit unions to operate a more centralised investment model that would allow them to pool their resources to develop community bank mortgages open to all members who meet the lending criteria. This would allow home loans to comprise 20% of the total credit union loan book, thereby offering a more member-friendly solution for credit unions that wish to expand their mortgage lending. This would contrast with the commercial banks, where between 55% and 75% of the loan books comprise mortgage loans.

We should utilise credit union funds to support the building of social housing. We should create a mechanism by which credit unions could invest in social housing. This would allow the credit union sector to invest up to €900 million in the provision of social housing and fund close to 6,500 badly needed new homes.

Credit unions could play a very important role in helping the country to meet its climate change targets if it were possible to provide funding for a national retrofitting programme. The Government has committed to retrofitting 500,000 homes by 2030 at an estimated cost of €5 billion. Credit unions are well-positioned to support this programme by leveraging their assets to provide funding.

We need to empower our credit unions to participate more fully in SME lending. Legislative changes will be required to ensure such sectoral lending is feasible. This would allow all credit unions that wish to participate in such lending to do so. The proposal to pool resources among credit unions also fits with the concept of a credit union-led community banking model.

This legislation is about allowing credit unions to adapt to the current pandemic. We need to ensure that our credit unions are to the forefront of this economy, rather than an afterthought.

Is Deputy Ó Murchú substituting for Deputy Ó Laoghaire?

Yes. I am a poor substitute but I will do my best.

It is the Deputy who said it.

I commend Deputy Nash on the most important statement he has made in this Chamber.

I look forward to it being reciprocated.

I have no difficulty whatsoever with that.

It has already been said by a number of Members that the legislation is largely an exercise in tidying up and facilitation, which we obviously support. There are questions over proxy votes and such.

Deputies Doherty and Mairéad Farrell and others spoke about the fact that the Minister probably needs to look at a number of these matters and, possibly, some of the legislation and ensure that we have everything right and that we have the correct levels of accountability and probity.

Credit unions have been spectacular in the work they have done in many communities. In many places, they are the stopgaps that have facilitated people who did not necessarily have the ability to go to retail banks and get loans that were absolutely necessary, from the point of view of getting through periods of difficulty during normal times never mind this particular pandemic. What we have seen with regard to credit unions in recent years is a huge amount of rules and regulations that are absolutely necessary as regards accountability and financial probity.

As I have stated, this was obviously necessary. There was a certain element of professionalisation, and smaller community-based credit unions were subsumed into larger operations. This has happened in Dundalk. The capacity at the larger level is necessary to ensure that all due diligence is done. It also gives the ability of better bang for buck. We need to make sure that we do not lose the community connection. A number of local people were able to make a decision which, to be fair, was not always necessary on absolutely financial or fiscal reasoning but on the basis of somebody needing those funds to get through a particular gap, such as facing into Christmas. If we completely remove this facility will we leave the space open for money lenders? A number of speakers have mentioned the legislation coming through and the absolute necessity for it. We need caps on the annual percentage rates charged by a huge number of these outfits. We are all aware of them in every town and village throughout Ireland and they are advertising. This is a busy time for them to catch people.

We support the legislation but we need to have a mindset jump on the whole idea of credit unions and the way we deal with housing. People are speaking about the fact credit unions are not being facilitated to deal with mortgages. We need to look at how we deal with affordable and social housing to ensure we also have the clawbacks that are necessary. We need to facilitate all of these things. We have made a number of jumps in this pandemic and we need to do it in the context of credit unions and a number of other issues.

I thank the Minister of State for listening. I raised this issue on Questions on Promised Legislation, and so have other colleagues throughout the House, to try to deal with credit unions. While this is a miscellaneous provisions Bill, it is important that we deal with the credit union aspect of it. Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le gach credit union fud na tíre. Every credit union in my county, from Nenagh to Carrick-on-Suir and in all the towns and various villages, must be saluted. It is in the real spirit of the late Canon Hayes that we support our communities. They are of the community, for the community and with the community. We all know the bad experience we had with the banking crash. Now we see the bad experiences continue with the banks and what they are doing. The Bill is an effort to deal with it.

I salute the board members, volunteers, management and staff of all credit unions in Tipperary and throughout the country for the work they do. In Clonmel recently, and, in fairness, I have not seen it anywhere else, the credit union erected a lovely shelter along the footpath to allow people who are standing outside because of Covid to shelter from the rain, wind and hail. I salute them because I see people standing out banks and they do not even want them inside any more. I salute the board and John Courtney and John Walsh and various people who are involved, and were involved, and thank them for caring for the people in the community. It is a lovely initiative. Our pillar banks do not mind whether people perish from the rain or wind or from vulture funds. They have lost the spirit and their reason to be.

The amendment to the Credit Union Act 1997 to make provision for the holding of certain meetings of credit unions virtually is very important. We have all had to change massively with working from home and using virtual meetings. They are difficult and challenging. I support some of the amendments that are being suggested because it will be very difficult to allow proxy votes in advance of AGMs. There are technical issues to be worked out. When I raised this two weeks ago, it was in the context of being very privileged in Clonmel to have a very profitable and healthy credit union. Approximately €1.7 million is to go back to the pockets of borrowers and members before Christmas, as happens every year, but the fact it could not hold the AGM meant that this could not been done. For the members of the credit union in Clonmel and its hinterland of Fethard, Newcastle and Ardfinnan, the excellent credit union in Cahir and those in Kilsheelan and out into the Nire and Ballymacarbry, that money would have been a godsend not only to them - they are entitle to it - but to the business people in those areas who, God knows, have suffered so much this year. It will never be forgotten.

We often say ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann about a person but we will not want a bliain like 2020 again. In fairness, I know the credit union movement has offered a loan scheme to members to tide them over Christmas and this is vital because we cannot have the money lenders and loan sharks, who are unscrupulous people, draining the lifeblood out of families at this particular time. It is so pressurised for parents of young children, and there is Santa Claus and every other need of people at this time of year. The days are short, the nights are long, it is cold and heating and proper clothing are needed. Credit unions have always been to help and support them.

The Bill will amend the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender and make provision on certain loan agreements entered into by the State with the European Union. The European Union has shown some solidarity this time, which is shocking. Others have mentioned the social contract with the EU. When we had the bank crash and the so-called bailout - I referred to it as a clean-out and I voted against it because we were charged up to 6% interest on money when we could get it from the European Central Bank, ECB, for less than 3%, and that was expensive enough - where was the solidarity? It was nowhere to be seen.

Ireland has approximately 250,000 small and medium enterprises, SMEs. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle would know them from Gaillimh and ar fud na tíre. They play a significant role in Ireland's non-financial business economy and employ approximately 70% of the workforce here at 885,000 people. Many of these small businesses got their start from the credit unions. Banks did not have faith in them when they had their dream and they had the initiative to set up small businesses and self-employed people took the plunge from a permanent job. We need these innovators and leaders and we need to support them. In the vast majority of cases, it was a credit union that launched them and had confidence in them. The people in the credit unions knew the families and their good healthy relationship with the credit unions. These businesses and their employees are being let down by the Government in two very serious ways. The first is in the context of the €2 billion credit guarantee loan scheme for businesses administered by the pillar banks, namely, AIB, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank. This scheme is failing the people badly. It is not functioning. The money was meant to be available to SMEs but it is not. The way the business liquidity scheme is being operated and administered means that thousands of small businesses will be forced to close due to a lack of cash flow. The cost of this will be the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Credit unions offer the space and viable liquidity and supports when businesses such as those to which I refer need it most.

Many of these companies are finding it difficult to collect this year's accounts because of Covid and people's loss of confidence. They are struggling. These small businesses have great relationships with people and they always pay, but it is proving difficult right now.

Disgracefully, only 3% of the €65 million available under the scheme has been approved for businesses. What is wrong? This is shocking. The Minister of State will take up this matter because he is a practical man, supports credit unions and small businesses and has an accountancy background. I have worked with him on many issues. For all intents and purposes, the banks are closed where supporting business is concerned. Other countries have drawn down copious amounts of the overall fund, and rightly so. I do not have the percentages with me, but we are entitled to our share.

The scheme must be overhauled and simplified and the banks' influence over the process must be removed or reduced. The scheme should be widened to cover all SMEs. I see a role for credit unions in this regard. For the past ten yeas or more, a jaundiced eye has been cast towards credit unions by the Central Bank and the pillar banks. When former Deputy Michael Noonan was Minister, he tried to squeeze the lifeblood out of credit unions - I heard him in the corners - and diminish their ability. There was jealousy of credit unions. Yes, one or two made big mistakes. Clonmel Credit Union was almost forced to take one over in Charleville, County Limerick. Thank God, that did not happen. There were problems in a few places, but nothing like the problems in the banks. The credit unions are all local and driven by voluntary boards.

Instead of being closed next June, the scheme should be extended to the end of 2021. There should be a role for credit unions. The pillar banks are not functioning and, as I pointed out when the relevant legislation was before the House, they should never have got their paws on this money because they would not deliver it. Only 3% has been drawn down as we near the year's end. That is shocking.

The European Central Bank, ECB, has made an unprecedented €1.5 trillion available at interest rates as low as -1%. That amount of money is a figure I cannot count or comprehend. It has been made available to eurozone banks directly with the aim of helping the economies of EU member states. Ireland represents approximately 5% of the EU's economy. Therefore, Irish banks should have proportional access to €9 billion of the amount distributed in order to lend to and support businesses and families at interest rates as low as -1%. What is wrong? Why are we not doing our job? Why are we not availing of that money? The banks are not doing it, so we should give the money to the credit unions, which have always stood up and supported people; ní neart go cur le chéile. They have the interests of small businesses in rural areas at heart. We are wiping out small businesses and this funding is not being drawn down. I would love to see the Minister of State addressing this shameful issue.

When I speak to any small business in Tipperary, it tells me that it cannot get a loan and is crippled by the lack of cash flow because of the pandemic. The Minister of State knows this better than I do. Every Deputy knows it. We are rightfully entitled to €9 billion of the EU fund. What kind of love affair do we have with the EU that we have to be the best boys in Europe? We are the best boys in Europe in terms of keeping Covid figures down, yet we have the most severe restrictions. Businesses are being wiped out and there are issues relating to mental health, cancer operations etc. This money is available to be drawn down and I want to know why it has not been. Could the credit unions not avail of some of it? They are honourable and can be trusted. One or two did some reckless lending and were punished, but they cannot all be tarred with the same brush. Clonmel Credit Union and other credit unions should be allowed to pay a dividend.

I do not know whether this legislation is too late, but I compliment the Government on introducing it. It will go to the Seanad now, which I hope will pass it. I also hope that the President will be able to sign it into law. Even if that process extends beyond the Christmas period, it will be enacted early in the new year. Some people will have to get loans. That is not ideal. In fairness, credit unions have offered loans, but loan sharks are licking their lips and their greasy paws. They are out there in housing estates, calling to people and literally intimidating them. Actually, they are not intimidating people, but they are offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh like the three wise men, but they are not wise and I would advise wise people to avoid them if at all possible. It would be horrific and shocking if people were forced into their arms.

Irish banks are not making loans available, yet the Government continues to trust them blindly to administer the credit guarantee scheme. With the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence, I will discuss the removal of the moratorium. I know several business people who are receiving phone calls and letters demanding money, but the Government has taken away their ability to earn that money, keep their employees working, pay their taxes etc. We are treating them appallingly but we are treating the banks with kid gloves and rubbing butter onto something. I will not say what I was going to say, but this situation is shocking. The Government's inactive policy appears to be about protecting the banking sector and not small businesses. This is sad.

Credit unions were the start. They lit the spark. They are the spirit of meitheal and of the late, great Canon John Hayes. They support small industries and businesses and have been with them all the way. I salute them. It is shameful that the policies of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will cost jobs. Why can we not think of na daoine beaga? I mentioned this matter to the Taoiseach this morning, but I do not know whether he understood me. He made some reference to my stature. I am talking about the little people. They are the backbone - shopkeepers, small contractors, undertakers, painters, plasterers and so on. They are out there. Think about all the shops in our towns. They have advanced and changed. Think about the hairdressers, nail shops and beauty salons that have mushroomed. They are good people. Maybe they had jobs before going into business. Credit unions have nearly always helped them out because they had to go back.

Why is the liquidity from the ECB not being availed of in Ireland? What has the Government done to ensure that banks are making other schemes for small businesses work? Only 3% has been drawn down. I would not be happy if the figure was 90%, but 3% is shocking. Will the Minister of State clarify why the Government is allowing this to happen?

Turning to the Bill's provisions, mention has been made of the start-up relief for entrepreneurs, SURE, scheme. It should be used to support families and workers.

Regarding the concept of one man, one vote, we do not want to see the same situation here as the US presidential election with all of its court challenges. There will be no court challenges in Ireland, but credit unions are finding it difficult to ensure the nearly sacred accountability to and representation of its members. Members have vóta amháin le gach duine, fear, bean nó na daoine óga when they are of an age to open an account. That members have just one vote each is sacrosanct and must be protected.

What about the role of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC? Its name is a pity. I am well aware of another organisation called "IFAC" in Tipperary. It is an accountancy firm that was set up by the IFA and is not to be confused with the fiscal council. Why have we ignored this issue and taken our eye off the ball? For how long has there been a vacancy on the IFAC's board? This is shameful and shows that the Government is not concentrating on supporting credit unions. I have no comments to make about the people on the board. I do not know their abilities. I am sure they are good and well meaning, but one person has served two terms, which is the restriction under the Act. I believe it is in section 14 of this Bill that the Government is asking the Dáil to approve allowing people to serve a third term. That is dangerous. We need fresh blood and new thinking. I sit on several voluntary community boards. They are accountable to the State and a certain number of members have to leave the board every year.

Finding volunteers is very onerous but we have to do it. As I said, I support Deputy Doherty's amendments in this regard. The voting in advance of the AGM is scary because, as the Minister of State will be aware, these things can be mutilated. Good and honest people would do this in good faith but it could be abused and could be a process we do not want.

I do not know what will happen as regards this legislation being passed here or when it will pass through the Seanad and be signed into law by the President. Will we be able to hold virtual AGMs this side of Christmas? I do not think so. The timescale is very tight, and the credit unions must be able to ensure safety and democracy and all the security systems surrounding that.

As for social housing, 56 homeless people have died in Dublin to date this year, and the credit unions have been ready, willing and able in this regard. We have considered the Sparkasse model in Germany and the way other countries have adapted to help people to get housing loans. They cannot get the loans here. There is the Rebuilding Ireland scheme. I heard this morning at the Business Committee that the housing committee is to waive pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill brought forward by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien. We are making a lot of noise and introducing a lot of legislation but we are not building the houses. The credit unions can play and have played a vital role in providing an opportunity to many people to upgrade and extend their houses for family members when they move on and get into relationships and have kids. The credit unions are there for that. The Central Bank always casts a jaundiced eye over them and they are being treated very harshly. When one or two of them, or perhaps a few more, erred, we threw the kitchen sink at them and they were all promptly closed. When the banks were reckless, however, and when we saw that appalling vista, we brought in emergency legislation to bail them out. The Minister of State and I and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be paying that debt back for decades to come. I voted for that legislation, much to my regret. I have said many times in this House that it was the worst political decision I ever made in my life. We have got nothing from the banks only disdain and mistreatment of borrowers. In most of the banks I go into now I do not say a word to the staff behind the counter because there are so few of them. It is robots and machines one meets now. The banks do not want customers inside their doors. However, I saw on Monday that the credit union in Clonmel put up a shelter for its members outside the door, on the footpath. It gives shelter to members queuing outside at present. I salute again the staff in Clonmel Credit Union, the board of management, the management and everybody who goes into the credit union.

I thank the Minister of State for bringing forward this legislation. I hope it will enable what I have spoken about. I thank the members of credit unions and offices, the people who spoke to me about this and other colleagues. This is a reasonable effort. We should be making legislation to help people, especially in this severe time of lockdown, loneliness, mental health issues and God knows what else. We will be seen to do this if we can. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through this House and through Seanad Éireann. I hope it will get up to Áras an Uachtaráin and get signed and enacted into law speedily.

I hope this Bill will pass the Dáil and the Seanad this week without too much ado. It is a very important Bill. It deals with a whole level of grassroots banking, that is, the model of the credit union, which for many generations has served Ireland and its people so well. There are three core objectives to the Bill. The first is to amend the Credit Union Act to allow for general meetings, which are prohibited under current health regulations, to proceed. Some of the amendments brought in will be permanent, and that is a good development. Second, the Fiscal Responsibility Act will be amended to allow for a longer term limit for a member of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. Finally, the third measure would concern the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 and would include the European Union as a facility lender, which would allow the State to comply with certain provisions contained in the SURE loan agreement. This is therefore very positive legislation. It allows credit unions to function normally at a very abnormal time, and anything this House can do to allow grassroots organisations that are so positive in our community to function should be welcomed by the House and supported wholeheartedly.

The credit union model has worked so well for many years in Ireland but it should also give us an opportunity to look at how we might expand community-level banking. New Zealand has developed what is called the Kiwibank system, whereby banking and post offices work in tandem in communities providing another very successful level of community banking. As we look to find a workable and sustainable future for our post offices in Ireland, the Kiwibank model is one we should consider again. It has been debated in the Dáil a number of times, but it is now time we had some deep analysis of it. Covid is a perfect time, when we are at a very low starting point with everything. We are talking about reopening the country properly only in the springtime. Now is the time to look at sectors such as our post offices, credit unions etc. to see whether they can have a more expansionary role in the community.

Banking has become rather unfriendly. Post offices and credit unions are the friendly face of banking. The experience people had for many decades of going into their bank, going up to the cashier, transacting with them and talking to them is gone. Banking is now digital. It is online. It involves pin codes and remembering the fourth or fifth digit of a code in order to log in. That is fine for some people, but people of my father's generation - I am not being ageist, I am being honest - cannot do this. Banking has become unfriendly and inaccessible to them to the point that some people are back putting wads of cash into the back of the wardrobe, stuffing them into socks and so on. That is happening in rural Ireland. When I canvassed my county in February, there were a small handful of houses where, as I chatted to someone at the front door I could see in beyond the hall table where he or she had money left insecurely around the house. That needs to change. In my county, Clare, Bank of Ireland at the outset of the Covid pandemic identified three branches at which it was to scale down operations, namely Tulla, Miltown Malbay and Kilkee. They now operate only up to lunchtime every day. They are totally unfriendly from the point of view of trying to do business in them. The staff there are excellent, but we need a decision made on high that these banks will be open according to normal business hours, as they were in all the years heretofore. I have been in touch with Bank of Ireland about the Tulla branch specifically because there is no facility whatsoever to make lodgments there. For any businesses in that vicinity, when it takes in a lot of cash or has money in its safe that it needs to deposit, there is no facility in Tulla, only an internal ATM withdrawal system inside the building. It does not help. It does not support businesses in the way it should.

This is a very positive Bill. I do not imagine there will be too much disquiet about it. I hope there will not be. It supports credit unions, something we should all get behind. I implore the Minister of State to consider other ways of supporting community banking. I have given the example of the Kiwibank system. I know the banks say "hands off" quite often, but they should, where possible, be more user-friendly to people who are perhaps not IT-literate and to people in rural Ireland who may need to do weekend and out-of-hours lodgments.

We have moved more quickly through the slots than anticipated. There is no provision for it, but if the Minister of State wishes to come back in, he may now do so briefly.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions to the Second Stage debate. I acknowledge the work of the credit union movement, which is a volunteer movement. I also thank the directors, the boards of directors and the staff who work in all our credit unions. The point has been well made that they are community-based. Depending on the amount of time I have, I wish to address some of the issues raised. If we have only a few minutes left, I can address them at the beginning of Committee Stage, which will follow on directly.

I assure Deputies that the issues they raised about proxy votes are not a problem in this legislation. We are proposing to allow credit unions, if they wish to change their rules in due course, to introduce proxy votes if they decide to do so. There is no request that they should do so. At the moment, that is specifically prohibited. If a credit unions wants to change its rules down the road, it is free to do so. The main issue - and I myself shared the concern when I first looked at the legislation - of people gathering up hundreds of proxy votes will be a matter for each credit union to decide as to how many proxy votes an individual can have. In one house there might be a son or a daughter who has the two votes on behalf of his or her parents. One might be a valid limit. Some might say that three or four should be the limit to cover a family unit in order that one person does the voting on behalf of the family. We are just allowing the credit unions to introduce the rules as they see fit. As for the other issue of a non-member having a vote, I understand the point made but, in practice, if a credit union wants to do that, it is free to facilitate the case I have just mentioned in which a son or a daughter might vote on behalf of his or her parents who are credit union members but that son or daughter might not be a credit union member.

That will all be decided by each individual credit union. I expect that some credit unions will go down this road in the coming years. Some may restrict it to one, two or three proxy votes, while others may allow four or five. Each credit union makes its own rules. All we are doing is introducing a provision to allow credit unions to allow proxy votes if they wish to do so. There is no obligation for them to do so. Some of them will never do it.

The issue of voting in advance was mentioned. I will reply briefly and get into it in a little more detail on Committee Stage. That provision is actually to facilitate a postal vote, for example. The Bill allows a credit union to make temporary arrangements for the interim period, that is, the first three months of the new year because of the pandemic. Thereafter, voting arrangements will have to be decided by the members at a meeting. Credit unions may go back to having in-person meetings or they can have virtual meetings or a combination of both. Virtual meetings would involve people using iPhones or laptops to log on securely and that being approved by the secretary or officials of the credit union. There will also be facilities for people to phone into the meeting so that they can contribute and hear what is being said. There is tremendous flexibility. Some meetings will involve a combination of those who are physically present at the AGM, those attending by phone and those using technology to attend the AGM virtually.

Some credit unions may choose to allow postal voting. By definition, this means that members votes have to be posted in before the meeting. If a credit union does not wish to go down that road, it does not have to do so. We are removing the legislative obstacles that prevent credit unions that wish to go that route from so doing. It will increase participation at AGMs if people can attend virtually or by phone. People may not be able to attend the meeting in person.

I genuinely believe that most of the concerns raised will not be an issue. I am absolutely sure that directors cannot introduce rules on proxy votes in this interim period unless the credit union has already gone that route. We are not aware of any credit union having such a provision already. The directors cannot introduce a provision bringing in a proxy vote system when they call a virtual AGM in the interim period up until the end of April. If the members wish to bring in such a system to be used in the future, they are free to do so. They are not legally prevented from doing so in the future. I understand why the issue of proxy votes was raised, but it is up to each credit union to make their rules to suit themselves.

I will return to the issue of the IFAC and other matters on Committee Stage and provide further information at that point.

Question put and agreed to.