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Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach debate -
Wednesday, 8 Dec 2021

Withdrawal from Irish Banking Market: Engagement with Ulster Bank

We are now joined by Ulster Bank. We have with us Ms Jane Howard, CEO; Mr. Paul Stanley, CFO and deputy CEO; Ms Fiona McMahon, director of compliance; and Ms Elizabeth Arnett, director of corporate affairs. Ms Howard will make a brief opening statement and then the members can put their questions or queries.

I draw attention to the matter of privilege. Witnesses who are physically present are covered by absolute privilege and those who are not on site may not be covered by full privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity.

Ms Jane Howard

I thank the committee for inviting us to attend today’s meeting. As the Chairman said, I am joined by Ulster Bank's chief financial officer and deputy CEO, Mr. Paul Stanley; the director of compliance, Ms Fiona McMahon; and the director of corporate affairs, Ms Elizabeth Arnett.

I understand we are constrained by time so rather than read the full statement, I will make some brief opining remarks. On 19 February, we announced our phased withdrawal from Ireland. At the time of the announcement, we made the commitment that it would be phased over an extended period and we signalled our intention to close a deal with AIB and enter into negotiations with Permanent TSB to get to a non-binding agreement.

We said there would be no branch closures this year. We committed to entering into negotiations with colleague representatives, which reached agreements in June. We said there would be no compulsory redundancy departures this year. We have met all those commitments and are hopeful that we will reach an agreement with Permanent TSB. The AIB deal and any Permanent TSB deal remains subject to regulatory approvals.

That leaves us with a body of work, which includes account closures supported by our Choose, Move and Close campaign where our priority is to provide as much help and support to our customers as possible as they transition to their new provider and finding a suitable path for remaining assets and then managing any remaining activities. There will be no branch closures in the first half of 2022 and there will be no bank-wide voluntary redundancy in that period. We will ensure a phased withdrawal over time and with due consideration to our customers and colleagues.

Finally, I want to take a moment to talk about our colleagues who have worked tremendously hard over the past ten months. It has been a challenging time for everyone but their commitment to customers has never wavered and their resilience in the face of unprecedented change will be forever to their credit. I want to thank them again for that dedication.

I thank the members of the committee. We are happy to take questions but I caution the members that some matters that may be raised might be commercially sensitive and could impact on negotiations which are under way. It would be more appropriate to discuss those aspects directly with us later.

We understand that. I thank Ms Howard for her opening statement and call Deputy Doherty.

It is a pity that we are having this discussion at all. Ulster Bank's withdrawal of services in the State is a loss to the banking sector. We might get a chance to talk about what type of banking environment would be required for Ulster Bank or a new bank to enter the market.

My first question relates to the legally binding agreement with AIB for the sale of approximately €4.2 billion of performing commercial lending, with the transfer of 300 members of staff under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations, or TUPE regulations. Will Ms Howard update the committee on the regulatory approval by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC? At what stage is it at? When is it likely that a decision will be notified to the parties?

Ms Jane Howard

As the Deputy noted, the transaction with AIB has come to a binding agreement. Work continues with AIB to plan, within the constraints allowed by the CCPC, to manage the transfer. The notification was submitted to the CCPC and last week we heard that we could expect to hear at some point in January whether there would be a phase 2 of the CCPC process or if it would end at phase 1.

That is the current state of the process.

I appreciate that. We will know more in January about whether that will be elongated or not. Ulster Bank also announced a non-binding memorandum of understanding. MOU. The other one was a legally binding agreement with AIB but this was a non-binding MOU with Permanent TSB for the sale of a €7.6 billion portfolio comprising performing mortgages, excluding tracker mortgages. It was also made up of performing micro SME loans, the Lombard Ireland asset finance business and 25 out of 88 branch locations with a transfer of 400 to 500 members of staff under the TUPE regulations. Can Ms Howard break down the value of that? What different parts make up the €7.6 billion? How much of that sum relates to the performing mortgage market, excluding the tracker mortgages, the micro SMEs, the finance business and the branch network, respectively? Can Ms Howard give any clarity on the figure for staff? A range was provided on that point.

Ms Jane Howard

I want to check that I understand the Deputy’s question correctly. The vast majority of the assets worth €7.6 billion relate to mortgages, with a significantly smaller amount relating to micro SMEs and the Lombard Ireland business.

Does Ms Howard have any sense of the scale of this, even if she does not have an accurate figure? Permanent TSB has a small business book. As we know, it was as low as €50 million. Are we looking at the same scale of the micro SMEs? Is it in that scale of €50 million, is it more like €10 million or is it in the scale of hundreds of millions?

Mr. Paul Stanley

It is in the hundreds of millions rather than in the billions. It is a few hundred million. It is micro SMEs rather than the wider business.

Will Mr. Stanley clarify that figure, please?

Mr. Paul Stanley

We will revert to the committee and confirm it. As I said, it is in the hundreds of millions; circa €300 million.

I refer to the Lombard Ireland asset business finance part of it. How much is that valued at?

Ms Jane Howard

It is not a question of what it is valued at. We will come back to the Deputy with the precise figure for Lombard Ireland.

That would be great.

Mr. Paul Stanley

As Ms Howard said, the mortgages account for the vast bulk of the book.

I appreciate that. Are we any closer to settling the range of staff? Where is the branch network at in terms of the figure for 25 out of 88? Where is Ulster Bank on the other branches? I ask the witnesses to give the committee an update on that.

Ms Jane Howard

We set a range of 400 to 500 staff. Members will know that the TUPE regulations are governed by law and we have to go through a precise process in understanding the roles that are wholly and mainly assigned with a particular perimeter and the transaction. That is being worked through diligently with us and Permanent TSB. When we get to binding agreements we would expect to be able to give a more precise figure for that. The final actual figure would normally not be different from the figure for binding agreements and that will be finalised on completion. When we get to binding agreements we will be able to give a more precise figure between the range of 400 and 500 staff but it remains within that range.

When are we likely to have a binding agreement between Permanent TSB and Ulster Bank on this portfolio?

Ms Jane Howard

Both parties are working hard on diligence and the aspects and steps we need to go through. I am hopeful we should be able to reach that in the near future.

We had a major decision on a record fine relating to IT problems in a regulated financial institution. I am not asking the witnesses to comment on this. Ulster Bank has been plagued by IT failures in the past and many of its customers have been left high and dry without access to their accounts for numerous weeks in the past. Can Ms Howard speak to the committee about the challenge of merging the IT of Permanent TSB and Ulster Bank and the compatibility of the systems? What confidence can Ms Howard provide to customers as their accounts are moved over, as we would expect when this agreement is legal and complete, that there will not be any glitches into the future?

Ms Jane Howard

I will ask Ms McMahon to comment on our IT in a minute. On the specific transaction with Permanent TSB, both parties have worked together to construct the transaction, including migration of the mortgages, the Lombard Ireland business and the micro SME loans so that it is within the risk appetite of both businesses, including the operational risk in technology. That is one of the reasons the deal has been constructed in the way it has. Lombard Ireland is an entire business on a distinct platform.

On mortgages, most of the banks have a past record on mortgage portfolios. As would be expected, due diligence takes place and that is what has been happening between the MOU and the binding agreement. Further and detailed minutiae planning will happen post a binding agreement. It is not unreasonable to say that both parties would not sign a binding agreement unless they had a level of confidence about the entirety of the transaction, including the transfer of the assets. I ask Ms McMahon to talk about the technology in terms of the regulations we have had to adhere to.

Ms Fiona McMahon

We will be doing detailed pre-migration work, as Ms Howard outlined. This area has also been subject to joint inspection work by the Single Supervisory Mechanism and Central Bank and is subject to ongoing monitoring. The inspection the Central Bank last conducted in this area concluded in 2018 and we responded to all of the findings of that inspection in 2019. There will be areas where, from an operational risk perspective, the Central Bank will continue to oversee and supervise in our business continuity planning and the management of our outsourcing, etc. That is the type of work we have been doing to ensure we have managed this operational risk as we go into the migration with various counterparts.

I ask the witnesses to address the issue of the branch network. Will Ms Howard outline Ulster Bank's overall loan bank? At what points in 2022 does she expect to have divested from that and have transferred those loan books? How much of that does she expect Ulster Bank to still have at the end of next year?

Ms Jane Howard

Whether the loan books and assets are transferring to AIB or whether they transfer to Permanent TSB when we get to binding agreement, they are subject to CCPC approval. Once that approval comes through, we then have to provide our customers with a notification period. We have plans to complete the majority of the asset transfers to both AIB and Permanent TSB, assuming we get to binding agreement and assuming that the CCPC approvals come through. As the Deputy will appreciate, we have drawn up scenarios where that might happen at a later date as well. We have plans and ideally we would like to see the majority of the assets moved next year but clearly it depends on getting regulatory approvals.

Would that be early next year or later?

Ms Jane Howard

Later next year.

Would it be the last quarter?

Ms Jane Howard

We are talking quarter 3 or quarter 4.

Ulster Bank must be delighted that the Minister for Finance let it off the hook with the banking levy, given that it will have all of these assets for the majority of next year. I am sure champagne corks were popping in headquarters in the Central Park boardroom.

Ms Jane Howard

We had conversations-----

How many millions of euro did Ulster Bank make out of that decision?

Ms Jane Howard

I do not have any figures to hand on that.

Mr. Paul Stanley

We did not make money. This was a charge to us over a period of time.

How much did Ulster Bank pay last year in respect of the banking levy? It will not pay it next year.

Mr. Paul Stanley

We will check if that is a disclosable figure. If it is, we will certainly come back to the Deputy with that information.

Between Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland, particularly this year, the State will take in approximately €80 million less than previously. Given its size, that decision is probably worth at least €40 million to Ulster Bank.

I will ask one final question because colleagues want to come in. We dealt with some of the tranches, the legally binding agreement and the memorandum of understanding. I still want to hear from the witnesses regarding the branches, but my final question relates to the tracker mortgage portfolio. There is no indication of where that is going. What is Ulster Bank's intention in respect of the tracker mortgage book? Do the witnesses agree - I am sure they will - that customers should just remain where they are and not switch, which leaves them open to losing a tracker mortgage that is valuable to them? Despite the fact that the bank is pulling out of the market, customers should remain where they are until a decision is arrived at. Where is Ulster Bank looking? What will it do with its tracker mortgage loan book? Will the witnesses signal any intention at this point in time?

Ms Jane Howard

Yes. We will touch on the other point the Deputy made regarding our customers. It is important for somebody who has a tracker mortgage to continue to avail of it, if that is what is right for that individual. We did a distinct piece of work with some customers who said they wanted to repay, which was to call them to ensure that that was what they wanted to do and they realised that they did not need to. I will ask Ms McMahon to touch on that issue in a moment.

A process is under way in respect of the tracker mortgage book. I commit to coming back to update the committee once there is something to say on that. I will ask Ms McMahon to touch on the work we did on customers who were-----

Is there any way the witnesses can elaborate further? People will be sitting at home wondering whether a vulture fund will buy the tracker mortgage book or if it will go to one of the mainstream banks. Are there any assurances the witnesses can give on this matter? Maybe they cannot name who they are in discussions with, but is it a high-street retail entity or a vulture fund?

Ms Jane Howard

As I said, the process is under way. I cannot disclose any more than that at present. On the Deputy's point about customers, if customers are happy with their tracker mortgage, they should not look to move it anywhere.

Mr. Paul Stanley

It is important for customers to understand, which is what the Deputy intimated, that whatever sale took place they will transfer with their trackers and the same terms and conditions. He is quite right to say that customers should not rush to do something if they do not particularly need to.

Ms Fiona McMahon

The legal rights and protections of customers will travel with them in respect of their tracker products. That is very important. We monitor our management information on an ongoing basis to look at any customers who want to change from a tracker product to ensure that we, and they, understand the reasons they are doing this, in addition to ensuring that they know they can keep their tracker products and should not look to repay because we are leaving the market. The rights associated with their tracker products will travel with them. We have instituted a process to ensure that we speak to those customers and explain their rights to them.

How many customers are affected by that tracker mortgage issue? What is the number of mortgages in the tracker mortgage book? How many customers will be affected by having to make a decision on this?

Ms Jane Howard

We will come back to the Chairman on the numbers so we give him an accurate figure. Is he talking about the number of customers?

What is the number of tracker mortgages on the bank's books at present that it will dispose of? I am not asking to whom they will be disposed. I just want to know how many customers will be affected.

Ms Jane Howard

We will come back to the Chairman with the precise numbers on that so we do not give him any incorrect information.

Deputy Doherty mentioned the branches, of which Ulster Bank has 88. How do they break down in terms of ownership, rentals or leases?

Ms Jane Howard

Sorry, we did not address the issue of branches. Twenty-five branches will be included in the perimeter that will be sold to PTSB. We have named those branches. We have said that the remaining ones will be staying open to serve our customers, certainly for the first half of next year. We will then start to reduce counter services so that our colleagues in branches can support customers with their transfer to a new bank.

On the branches that will not move to PTSB, I have not got the precise numbers for which are freehold and which are leasehold, but we can certainly allow the committee to have that, if members want that particular detail.

Mr. Paul Stanley

There would be a mix in that.

Ms Jane Howard

Yes. There is a mix.

I would just like to know what is happening to the freehold properties, in particular, and what Ulster Bank intends to do with them. Some of those properties may go with the loans and the employees on particular sales that the bank is doing, but others may be left within communities. I also want to look at what might happen to the properties that Ulster Bank has leased. Will the witnesses give us a list of locations and so on for the 88 branches?

Ms Jane Howard

Yes. We-----

Is Ulster Bank fully engaged with union representatives in respect of staff and their requirements?

Ms Jane Howard

Yes. In June this year, we reached an agreement with the Financial Services Union, FSU. Colleagues voted on that and enhanced redundancy terms were approved. We have worked very hard with the FSU. We both had the same ambition, which was to minimise job losses, ensure that our colleagues are upskilled for the future and to clear the redundancy terms. This includes a training grant of €5,000 for each person. It is something on which the FSU worked very hard with us.

Okay. Are all of the issues dealt with under that memorandum of understanding? Has the bank dealt with all the issues with the union? Does it have an agreement with the union that it will follow?

Ms Jane Howard


Okay. That is fine. I ask the witnesses to supply the information we have asked for. I call Deputy Farrell.

I apologise. I sometimes have issues with sound, as the Chairman knows. Gabhaim buíochas leis na finnéithe as teacht os comhair an choiste. I am interested in the non-performing loans. The witnesses did not give any indication in their opening statement as to the ultimate fate of the non-performing loan book. Many customers are understandably anxious about the entity that will hold their mortgage accounts. Will the witnesses outline the value and number of accounts in the bank's non-performing mortgage loan book? Can they provide an outline of their make-up by way of the year in which they first fell into arrears and the number that has been restructured? Is it the bank's intention to sell this loan book to a retail bank or to an aggressive vulture fund?

Ms Jane Howard

I thank the Deputy for the question. One of the points we have made in the past, and it is an issue we have worked very hard on, is to ask any constituents or customers listening who are in financial difficulty to please engage with us. I have previously quoted this figure, but we have found that in four out of five cases we have been able to support customers to get them to a performing basis and remain in a home they can afford to be in. We have done that very much on an individual basis and by reviewing customers, because they all have very different circumstances, on a case-by-case basis to see how we can come up with something that works for them and the bank. That has continued. We have continued to support customers throughout all of this year. In the majority of cases, we are still finding that we are able to help customers get on to a performing basis and, therefore, take the worry of having a non-performing loan away from them.

We provided the committee with some details more recently on non-performing loans. Our figures for 30 September give a non-performing loan ratio of just over 4%. We had roughly 5,300 customers whose loans were categorised as non-performing. We saw that number reduce throughout 2021 as we moved customers to performing status. Customers should engage with us because we are keen to help them to get to performing status. In this way, they can be included in any transaction we are making. There will come a time when we will have customers whom we cannot move to performing status and when we will have to deal with the non-performing loan sale. That is not the priority; the priority right now is to continue to support customers.

Can Ms Howard indicate when the bank will have to deal with the non-performing loan sale? We hope people will engage.

Ms Jane Howard

We have made a very deliberate decision not to deal with a non-performing loan until we deal with the performing aspects. The reason we made that decision was to give as many customers as possible the opportunity to engage with us, move to performing status and be included within the performing asset sale. We deliberately put dealing with the non-performing loans to the back of the work we are doing. It is unlikely to happen in 2022. It is more likely to happen after that time. We do not have a definitive time at the moment because it will depend on the completion of the other transactions. However, we will come back to the committee and let it know when there is something to say on the non-performing loans sale.

In November 2019, the deputy governor of the Central Bank stated at the national retail banking conference of the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland, BPFI, that "the Central Bank is still having to push banks and non-banks too hard to take a customer centric approach to resolving arrears". He made clear that the Central Bank does not have a preference for loan sales but for sustainably reducing non-performing loans with the multiple tools available. I understand that this is the same as what Ms Howard is saying. The core processes involve the code of conduct on mortgage arrears, CCMA, and the mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP. Under MARP, the lender must explore all options for alternative repayment arrangements. For Ulster Bank, were MARP and the CCMA considered to be requirements, or did it regard them as a set of guidelines that could be sidestepped if it suited?

Ms Jane Howard

In terms of the non-performing loans, we have worked with customers very much on a one-to-one basis, using all the tools available. All customer circumstances are different. We are very much open to examining the different options that are available and what is right for each customer. We update the Central Bank regularly. I was with the supervisor only a couple of weeks ago updating her on what we have delivered this year and what we have achieved. I shared some of the best practices that seem to have worked well. We are constantly changing things to try to get more customers to engage. The Central Bank was aware of exactly what we were doing.

That was my next question. Ulster Bank has to provide evidence to the Central Bank that it has examined all the various options.

Ms Howard stated Ulster Bank comes to some kind of agreement with four out of five of those who engage with it. On those agreements, what are the preferred arrangements to keep people in their homes? Does Ms Howard have a breakdown?

Ms Jane Howard

I have not got a breakdown. Ms McMahon and I join the case clinics where the individual cases are reviewed with the teams that have been engaging with the customers. There is range of preferences, however. Some customers might want to extend the term. Some might have found money from other sources. We see what we can do to make the debt manageable. There are other customers who choose to downsize. There is a range of solutions available. With each customer, there can be an individual solution or a mix of solutions on which we work. Would Ms McMahon like to add anything? It is not a particular theme.

Ms Fiona McMahon

The case clinics that we conduct for customers have been very helpful in allowing us to examine every customer's unique set of circumstances and, therefore, the solutions that will work best for him or her. That is why we believe we have got a good outcome in having four out of five customers engaging.

Let me touch on the Deputy's question on the code of conduct on mortgage arrears. The code is a requirement; it is not something that we would view as optional.

On capital requirements, over the past couple of months, there has been a good bit of commentary on the return on equity and capital requirements that characterise the banking sector here. We have seen from research that risk-weighted assets attributed to Irish banks were significantly affected by the legacy of the crash, with a subsequent impact on the return on equity and even the mortgage interest rates that characterise the mortgage market. Could the delegates comment on this?

Ms Jane Howard

I believe it was Goodbody that produced a very good article on this. Is there anything that Mr. Stanley would like to add on this?

Mr. Paul Stanley

We talked about this before, as have other industry members. The challenge, as the Deputy stated, has been the weightings, particularly of mortgages but also of other aspects. It has been driven by the crash. We have not got a time series of data that potentially exist in other economies where there are ups and downs and, therefore, a dampened impact in terms of risk-weighted assets and capital. I have probably given the example before that from our parents' perspective, the amount of capital held on a mortgage would have been in the mid- to low teens by comparison with the level of 34% held within the Irish market. It just gives a flavour of the differential. There are different rates in different economies across Europe, but with regard to the risk-weighted assets held and ultimately the impact regarding pricing, the Irish banking industry is at the outer ends across Europe.

My final question is on the status of the 600 jobs in the North. Will they be directly affected by the withdrawal of Ulster Bank here in the South? Have new rules been identified for the staff? Can the delegates give a commitment to the staff that their jobs are secure?

Ms Jane Howard

We have colleagues who work in Northern Ireland. We also have colleagues in the Republic, and we have some colleagues in Britain. Everybody is impacted to some extent, whether they will have a TUPE right to move to another bank or ultimately leave the organisation or be made redundant in due course. We are doing a tremendous amount of work to support colleagues. Regarding our colleagues in Northern Ireland, in particular, NatWest has some operations. We have been examining whether there are possible roles for these staff in NatWest. That has been successful. We have released some colleagues early and replaced them with agency or other workers. We have released staff for permanent roles wherever we have been able to do so, and we have upskilled some colleagues. Ms Arnett will talk a little about all colleagues, including those in Northern Ireland.

Ms Elizabeth Arnett

I thank the Deputy for the question. She touched on a pertinent point in that the withdrawal impacts all our colleagues to a greater or lesser extent. As Ms Howard has said, we will have colleagues who will have TUPE rights and who will move to another institution and continue to do the work they are doing now, but that does not apply to the majority of our colleagues. From the outset, or once we announced the withdrawal in February, we focused significantly on engaging with all our colleagues to prepare for the changes that are coming for individuals and their careers.

We put a big focus on learning and development. We have almost 700 colleagues doing professional qualifications this year. We have invested in that and have opened up another window in relation to the professional qualifications. We are also providing a lot of practical support to get colleagues ready to think about where they want to be in their careers in terms of career coaching, LinkedIn profiles and the practical supports needed to start thinking about where to go next and how to get there. That is a programme that is ongoing in the sense that, now that we have concluded the discussions with the Financial Services Union, we have an additional training grant for colleagues as they depart the bank. On the day they leave, they are given a €5,000 grant for additional and further training beyond their career with Ulster Bank.

As Ms Howard said, we have not opened and are not opening a redundancy scheme this year. We made a very clear commitment in respect of that back in February. We have gone further than that to say we will not be opening a voluntary redundancy scheme in the first half of next year. Our intention is to give colleagues as much notice and support as we can, but there is quite a body of work to be done. We call out the enormous commitment our colleagues have shown to the work that has to be done, both through Covid and the withdrawal, particularly our colleagues who work in our branches and online. We are very conscious of the issue. It is a good issue to raise. We will keep the committee updated as to the progress we make.

While it would be good to keep us updated, obviously, the most important thing is to keep the workers updated. That concludes my questions.

On the current and deposit account customers, as the bank negotiates the sale of its loans or mortgages and so on, does it enter into discussions, especially with the mainstream banks, as to whether they are interested in contacting customers or if they are willing to give the same terms and conditions as the customers have at present? Is that part of the conversation with the possible buyers of the loan books? Second, on going to market, I know the bank has to get the best price for its loan books, but does it have a preference in dealing with vulture funds or mainstream banks?

Ms Jane Howard

In terms of our customers with current and deposit accounts, we have to be very mindful of the competition laws here. Our customers have a choice of where they want to bank. I will ask Ms Arnett to speak in a moment about the Choose, Move and Close campaign we have launched to support customers with choosing another organisation, moving their banking to that organisation and closing their account.

It is also important I mention at this stage that we recognise the scale of customer movement is quite unprecedented for Ireland. Therefore, we have been engaging with the industry. We have started that engagement, through Banking and Payments Federation Ireland, BPFI, so that the other banks can also be prepared to take our customers when they have made their choice. When I use the term "banks", I mean that in the broadest in the sense. There are new entrants that might be a good solution for some customers. Some customers will want a full service bank. There are also credit unions, An Post and so on. We have started that engagement with the industry.

We have also started to engage with direct debit originators and the biggest employers in Ireland so that they also can be ready to support our customers when we move their direct debits and when people have to move their salaries. Finally, we have engaged with other organisations, such as Age Friendly Ireland, because we are very mindful we have some customers who will need more support than others and it is important we help them.

Perhaps Ms Arnett can speak to the question in terms of the Choose, Move and Close campaign.

Ms Elizabeth Arnett

Regarding current and deposit accounts, customers will have to close their accounts with us. We are working on a campaign to support that. As Ms Howard has said, there are a large number of customers who are going to be impacted by this. We are calling the campaign Choose, Move and Close because customers will need to choose a new institution to go to, how they will move to that institution - there are a couple of ways they can do that - and ultimately, close their account with us. We are not going to start that directly with customers until the new year. We launched the campaign and began conversations with stakeholders and industry at the end of October. We want to start having conversations, particularly in branches, with our most vulnerable customers and customers who are reliant on the branch primarily for their banking needs. Their requirements are possibly longer and more complicated than other customers who may find it very easy to switch digitally or whatever their options will be. We have started to have those conversations throughout our branch network to ensure our most vulnerable customers, and indeed all of our customers, are aware of what is coming, the changes that are coming and what that means for them. When our branch colleagues meet these customers, they can have those sorts of conversations and provide that kind of support.

In 2022, we will go above the line, for want of a better phrase, with this campaign in terms of marketing and direct communication with customers. We will be very clear in terms of the timelines customers have. There will be a six-month window to make the changes that are required. Currently, the code is 60 days. We are going to extend that to six months. We will be making multiple contacts with customers within that window so they are very clear as to what is expected and when. We will do that on a phased and rolling basis so that we are spreading it out in a logical sense in order that we can continue to serve customers appropriately as we make these changes. What is important now for us is the sort of conversations Ms Howard has referenced, especially with the stakeholders that represent vulnerable customers. As we plan for the activity of next year, it is a good opportunity for us to understand what those concerns are, and if anyone wants to talk to us about that following the meeting, thinking of particular types of customers and vulnerable customer groups or particular needs customers have, now is a good time for that engagement as we finalise the plans for that activity in 2022.

I am not quite sure that I got a clear response on vulture funds versus mainstream banks.

Ms Jane Howard

I will come to that question now. When we made the announcement in terms of the withdrawal, we did express the preference that we wanted to, where possible, work with full service banking providers. The reason for that was because of ongoing customer service. It was an opportunity to minimise job losses. We have seen that in the two transactions we have agreed with AIB and, clearly, when we reach agreement with PTSB. That was what we set out clearly when we announced the withdrawal.

Deputy Doherty mentioned the bank levy. How much did Ulster Bank pay in 2021?

Mr. Paul Stanley

I do not believe we disclose that, but if we do, we will certainly pass that on to the committee.

Mr. Paul Stanley

I do not believe we disclose that as part of our financials, but if we do, I will certainly pass the details on to the committee.

Please do.

My apologies for missing the initial statements. There are two or three issues I want to run past the witnesses. I have raised questions before with KBC and the same applies to Ulster Bank. Both banks are retaining an interest in Ireland. I think the question may have been answered before I joined the meeting. Can I be assured as to what the interest is for, and that it is not for cherry-picking purposes?

Ms Jane Howard

I thank the Deputy for the question. In terms of Ulster Bank, we are withdrawing from Ireland. There is not an intention to retain an interest here. At the time of the announcement in February, NatWest explained it had conducted a strategic review of the operations in Ireland and, following the conclusion of that review, announced the phased withdrawal. Members may be aware that as part of the consideration of the proposed transaction with PTSB, if it goes ahead, it is likely that NatWest Group will receive the minority non-controlling equity stake in PTSB.

However, that was part of the construct of the deal that worked for all parties, including customers and colleagues. There is not an intention to have an interest here.

I am still a little at sea but more about that later. I should mention I am a customer of the bank and have been for many years. In the business I am in, where we start at 8 a.m. or 8.30 a.m. and finish at 1 a.m. the following morning, one does not get the chance to call into the bank very often. However, I called in recently to close the account and offered to pay off any outstanding balances, which were not very much. I was told I must have it in cash. Where would I get cash, since I do not have cash and do not carry it around with me? Obviously, I had to go the same bank's cash machine in order to get some. My point is that if the banks want to facilitate the public, and I assume that would be the intention, they should make it so accounts can be closed without too much hassle. For example, in respect of a joint account, it is not possible for myself and my wife to be in the same bank at the same time during the working week. It just is not possible.

Ms Jane Howard

I thank the Deputy. First of all, I apologise. He should not have been expected to bring in cash to Ulster Bank to close the account. If we can get the details from him we will take his feedback. I apologise as that should not have happened. We should be making it as easy as possible so we will certainly take that away. On the joint account, we are actively listening to customers at the moment in terms of anybody who is closing an account. We are looking for good feedback and areas where we need to improve. Joint accounts are an area that has come up and we have had the legal team look at terms and conditions to work out how we can support customers so they would not necessarily both have to be there at the same time. That is something we are working on at the moment. I thank the Deputy for letting us know about it. If he has any other feedback we would welcome it, be it from his own experience or anything else he hears.

That has been very helpful because in fact I thought it was not going to be possible to close the account even though I wanted to clear it. I did clear it, as it happens. The next thing that happened was the charge came up and then another charge came up. One wonders whether it possible to extinguish an account. I thank Ms Howard for her response. It explained the situation. We shall await developments on same.

The members have put forward their questions. I thank Ulster Bank for coming in today. I wish it well with the work ahead and especially the work with its staff and customers. I ask it provide us with whatever information requested by members which bank officials did not have to hand. I again thank Ms Howard and her team.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.04 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Thursday, 9 December 2021.