I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to address them today. I want to talk to the committee about Ulster Bank and about the need for a debate on the type of banking we as a society want in Ireland. The Financial Services Union, FSU, is clear that banking is too important to be left to senior bankers. It has proudly represented staff for over 100 years and it takes every possible opportunity to stand up for staff, customers, and communities.
I regret that Ulster Bank has declined the invitation to attend the meeting today but I am not surprised. Information about this process is, as we have discovered, hard found. Three months ago, media reports speculated that NatWest was undertaking a strategic review of Ulster Bank operations in the Republic of Ireland and that complete closure of its operation was on the agenda. Throughout this process, the bank has refused to engage with us on what is actually going on. It has been the media, through strong reporting, that has kept us, and the committee, informed about elements of the process. So much remains uncertain, unclear and unexplained. It would be one thing if the decision of NatWest only affected Ulster Bank and its employees but a decision to close a bank as important as Ulster Bank would have a devastating impact not only on the staff but on communities throughout Ireland and on the commercial life of those communities. It would create enormous uncertainty, and has already done so, for customers of the bank and it raises the distinct possibility that the Ulster Bank loan book, or at least major portions of it, could end up in the hands of a vulture fund.
The decisions around this review are being taken now and so we need action now and that is why we are grateful to the committee for this opportunity to address it. We have been talking to staff members about the impact of all this situation. I will illustrate by example the feedback we have received. The following staff member is not identified, but the words are well worth putting on the record of the committee today. The employee stated:
Working on a cash desk in a branch during the recent media speculation has been extremely difficult. Customers are asking daily when we are closing. They are asking what will happen to their account, savings, and mortgage when the bank closes.
I try to reassure them that it is purely speculation and that Ulster Bank and NatWest are committed to Ireland but honestly, customers are not buying it. It is so hard to tell customers this when I feel like I am lying to them.
Customers are telling us that there is no smoke without fire and the newspaper articles had to come from somewhere. The longer the speculation and media articles continue, the more difficult it is to reassure customers.
Let us put ourselves in the shoes of this staff member. This person has worked through the pandemic, keeping the bank and service going, has worked in the bank for years, has a real affinity for the bank and its customers and is rewarded by reading about the employee's own future in the media. The employer will not even inform staff of the terms of reference for the review, its timetable or core elements of the review process. This is completely indefensible. While the individual is anonymised, members of this committee know such employees as they are representative of many people around our country. They know their community, as members do, and they know, as members do, the impact all this could have. These loyal, dedicated staff members deserve better from their employer and loyal Ulster Bank customers deserve better from their bank.
Members will have read some commentary about Ulster Bank’s financial performance. Let us take a closer look at that. Ulster Bank is the third biggest bank in this country. It has 88 branches throughout the country. It employs around 3,000 people in Ireland and has over one million customers. In November 2016, Ulster Bank paid its parent company, NatWest, a dividend of €1.5 billion. In January 2018, that dividend was also €1.5 billion and in December 2019, a dividend of €0.5 billion was paid to NatWest. Ulster Bank has paid a total to €3.5 billion in dividends to its parent in the last three years.
NatWest also charges Ulster Bank for services provided by the parent company to the subsidiary. These can include anything from payroll services to charging for a proportion of advertising and sponsorship that the parent company undertakes. The committee may be interested to know that NatWest sponsorships the English and Welsh cricket teams. As a result, Ulster Bank pays a proportion of this sponsorship. Help for what matters, the bank might well say, but hardly evidence of a bank that is struggling.
In December 2019, Ulster Bank CEO, Jane Howard stated "Our CET1 ratio will be 27% post payment of this dividend which leaves us in a strong capital position and well-placed to continue to support customers' ambitions through excellent products and service." It seems clear that NatWest has decided to use Covid-19 as a cover to prioritise some other agenda over any long-term strategy. It has decided that staff, customers, and communities in the Republic of Ireland are of little significance. To be blunt, it has manufactured a crisis using Covid-19 as cover. We cannot sit back and allow this to happen on our watch. It will be too late when the decision is made. We need to act collectively in the national interest and protect customers, staff, and communities.
The Minister for Finance has a role to play. He must contact his counterpart in the UK and express the Government's opposition to NatWest selling any part of the Ulster Bank loan book to a vulture fund. We know the damage that a vulture fund can do. There should be no place in Irish banking or society for vulture funds. The Central Bank has a role too. Currently, any bank can close a branch with two months' notice. This does not serve customers or communities. We need a new code of consumer protection that actually protects customers and consumers. The last few months have seen all the main banks in Ireland announce reviews of their operations. They all have something in common. They are all looking to close branches and cut staffing levels. Bankers are writing the future of banking in front of our eyes. We know where that got us before. We cannot allow this to happen again.
The FSU will shortly launch a discussion paper on the establishment of a national banking forum, one where we can all have an input into the future direction of banking in this country. I hope members will help to lead that debate. The timetable for this debate is short. On Ulster Bank, we need members' continued leadership also. We need political engagement to demonstrate the impact that this decision would have on our communities and staff. We must all act now: for our communities, to protect jobs and vital commercial infrastructure, for the bank's customers, to protect them from vultures and who knows what; and finally, to ensure a competitive banking system in Ireland, for our citizens, our SMEs and for our economy. If we do not act now, we face an effective duopoly in banking, with branches closed and jobs lost around the country, and with vulture funds holding the financial keys of family homes. Without action now, that is the near future for all of us.