Not subsequent to the Minister meeting the chairman of NatWest - we were engaged with the Minister but did not have a physical meeting.
In response to Deputy Durkan, I agree that Ulster Bank has a huge presence in the midlands.
In response to Deputy Doherty, the best outcome for Ireland is the arrangement involving Permanent TSB and AIB that is being developed. Those proposals would allow us to retain as many jobs and branches as possible in Ireland and the skills that go with a bank like this. Ulster Bank in particular is known for its skilled lending staff in respect of the SME sector and so forth so we need to hold on to these skills.
I answered Deputy Tóibín's point about the Government. We had an initial meeting with the bank today and made our position very clear, particularly with regard to those 40 individuals who heard the first announcement last Friday and felt they got a reprieve only for that to be dashed on Monday. Those staff are in everybody's thoughts and the bank must do the right thing by them.
In terms of removing bank branches, we are in the fourth quartile of digital maturity in Ireland. We are not there yet. We are trying to develop broadband in rural areas. The reason put forward for closing branches, namely, that people go online, is not relevant to the communities that will be hit by branch closures. It is not city centres and areas where there is good broadband coverage that are under threat - it is rural areas. The members saw the reports last week about east Clare and so forth in respect of places under threat. To go back to Deputy Doherty's point, it is a very delicate situation but we believe the best outcome involves the Permanent TSB-AIB-type proposals that solidify banking, create a third force and give a future in terms of competition.
We have a very strong position on vulture funds - no more than all the members. Our experience is a very bitter one and we do not want it repeated in Irish banking. We see no reason it would be repeated.
In terms of the 300 staff, we did not put the figure at 300 staff and I do not know who is pushing that number. It is not helpful at this stage to push numbers when we are at the preliminary stages of a change programme. This is why the bank making it clear what the options are, as it says in its annual report, would be really beneficial to this process. Our position is quite simple.
In respect of a senior executive accountability regime and timelines, our view is that the sooner it happens the better. Fining banks is irrelevant. All studies have shown that in respect of culture change. Fining bankers has an effect but fining banks has no effect on changing bank culture. A senior executive accountability regime is an important part of that. It is interesting to note that the banks did a survey through the Banking Federation of Ireland that showed that post pandemic, significant numbers of people will return to branch banking. One of the most interesting facts is that the younger generation by a percentage of 83% would return to branch banking. This is the banks' own survey so why would they close branches when they have that information in terms of surveys?
We believe that now is the time for a debate on the future of banking. In respect of Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's question on what would make it more attractive, this is why we need a full debate on what model we want and what we want to attract. There are other models of banking out there that do not strive to make profits over profits. They look to have a sustainable banking system. We want a debate in Ireland with all stakeholders around the table and, as Deputy Nash said, modelled on the retail consultation forum that would provide it with a bit of order and allow for a discussion.
In respect of Deputy Mairéad Farrell's points, the orderly wind-down is something we will work with as long as the bank changes its behaviour. The behaviour displayed right up to and beyond the announcement is not acceptable. We will commit to an orderly wind-down. We are not interested in causing any disruption to the banking system but this is contingent on the banks behaving in a manner that is reflective of us as a society and not just driving on with change regardless of the impact on communities and jobs. One of the points made by Deputy Mairéad Farrell is probably one of the most relevant and one I understand the bank will confirm today. It relates to the impact on the mental health of staff. Week after week, staff asked questions. They were given information to give to customers that they told us they did not even believe so how could we expect the customers to believe it? As time went on and the questions grew louder, people were impacted. I believe the bank will confirm that today. There are regulatory authorities in terms of how health and safety at work is governed and they should seek a copy of this committee's deliberations in that regard in respect of staff's health and safety. It is a really important issue. It was clear that the way the bank decided to do this and the behaviour it displayed was all about protecting the bank and that staff and customers were left hanging out to dry.