For the information of the House, this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage of which will be treated in the same way as a non-Government motion, with an overall time limit of two hours. The time allocated to the proposer is 12 minutes and the proposer will have five minutes to reply at the end of the debate. Every other Senator will have eight minutes to contribute as usual.
Central Bank (Amendment) Bill, 2000: Second Stage.
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, to the House. I am delighted to have the opportunity of proposing this Bill on Second Stage and I would be heartened if the Minister would reply in the positive. The purpose of the Bill is to focus attention on the Irish banking system, to examine its role in Irish society and specifically to provide for regulatory procedures to ensure that a social dimension is added to the existing regulation of the banks exercised at present by the Central Bank. Section 9 of the Central Bank Act, 1971, provides for the Central Bank to grant licences to carry on a banking business. Licence may be refused if the Central Bank is satisfied that the granting of a licence would not be in the interest of the orderly and proper regulation of banking. Section 10 allows the Central Bank to impose conditions which in the opinion of the Central Bank are calculated to promote the orderly and proper regulation of banking. Further conditions can be added to a licence already granted.
In the context of these powers my amendment is simple and straightforward. It seeks to confer on the Central Bank the additional responsibility of supervising the operation of the banking system. It attempts to ensure that a bank has and maintains a sufficient number of branches and other offices throughout the State to meet the reasonable requirements of that bank. This Bill if passed will require the banking sector to live up to its social obligations and its much vaunted customer care pronouncements. How often have we seen literature on TV and radio advertisements presenting the banks as customer friendly, customer based and customer caring bodies? The impression given is that the customer comes first. In reality, that means the corporate customer. Unfortunately, the elderly pensioner, the happy couple buying their first home or the young people opening their first account who are so often depicted in the promotional literature are not central to the banks' customer service. I believe the banks are regularly guilty of false advertising.
This harsh reality was driven home to me in July last year when the Bank of Ireland announced that it was closing 20% of its branch network throughout the country, approximately 60 branches, in a major cost-cutting exercise. The announcement was all the more appalling because the bank had just announced an 80% increase in annual pre-tax profits, a record increase which at that point was £0.75 billion for the 12 months. Allied Irish Bank has just announced record profits of almost £1 billion, the first Irish financial business to reach that level of profitability in a year. It is also engaged in a programme of cost-cutting and branch and office closures. The end result is that while the bank profits are soaring and while major changes that successive Governments have made to corporation tax has reduced the tax take bill from approximately 40% a few years ago to 12.5% in 2003, the service to the ordinary customer is declining if not disappearing altogether.
The Bank of Ireland dropped a bombshell on the communities of Stoneybatter and Cabra when it announced its intention to close its two branches in these areas in July 2000. These were the first two of five branches that it closed before Christmas. I campaigned strongly against those closures and collected 12,000 petitions signed by local people who are extremely annoyed by the bank's decision. At the end of October I led a delegation of residents from Cabra and Stoneybatter to meet the bank's representatives and to present them with a petition urging them to keep the branches open. The delegation argued strenuously, but to no avail, on the grounds of the huge population of the two areas, the huge development and expansion that was taking place there and the heavy blow it would be to the elderly and the business community in particular. Condemnation of the closures even came from the pulpit of the local church in Aughrim Street. The bank representatives reiterated their decision to close the branches and to replace the direct customer service with Internet and telephone banking as though this was a satisfactory alternative to the needs of the ordinary customers who want and need an accessible service where they can conduct their business face to face and in private. That is customer service.
I received many e-mails and letters about this, recording the frustration and annoyance of local people. One letter which was originally sent to Mr. Holden, the general manager in charge of personnel matters, states strong objections to the bank's decision to close the bank in Stoneybatter. It reminds him that in such a community the older people would be the most affected. They will now have to travel further to do their banking. It is disgusting to see the lack of care shown towards the people who built the country, people who worked themselves to the bone so that others could sit in warm, comfortable offices and receive generous monthly pay cheques.
There are at least ten elderly people living in a very small street in Stonybatter, and 24 hour Internet banking and telephone banking means nothing to them. In some cases the trip to the bank was a weekly ritual which allowed them to get out and about, meet people and interact in a society that often ignores the basic rights of the elderly. When an institution like the Bank of Ireland leads the way in pushing the elderly into the background, others will follow.
The next time there is news of an elderly person mugged on the journey to withdraw their pension, the banks must take the blame. The correspondent says that hopefully it will never happen to any of the bank employees' loved ones. This is a typical letter sent to the Bank of Ireland at the time and it was not heeded.
The desire for profits at all costs, and particularly at the expense of customer service, is not in the long-term interests of the banks. In Britain, NatWest has realised the long-term benefits of retaining the existing branch structure. It has halted all proposed closures and has used this to great effect in its publicity campaign. Instead of being driven by corporate greed, the banks should put people before profit and make friendly customer service the hallmark of the banking system.
Recent announcements by the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance relating to the Central Bank and a new financial services authority were made on 20 February 2001. They totally enhance and bolster the principles and substance of this Bill.
The Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs will be subsumed into the new body in relation to financial services. A financial services ombudsman will deal with customer complaints. Consumer and customer protection will now be on a par with prudential supervision for the very first time. That in itself is a revolution in the banking sector.
In his announcement of the new structure for financial services regulations, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, said that the overall aim of all these changes is to develop a renewed focus on consumer issues while facilitating the development of a competitive and modern financial system. The Minister emphasised that customers' interests are important and must be taken into account. He said that the new regulatory body must also ensure that the institutions deal with their customers on the basis of standards of decency, probity and fairness.
This Bill seeks to impose on the Central Bank an obligation to take into consideration the inadequacy of the branch network of each bank and to assure that there is a satisfactory level of customer service in place.
I have read an internal document from the Bank of Ireland Group which details a profile of the closure of the Stonybatter branch. It notes that Stonybatter is located less than a mile from Smithfield and is one of the oldest suburban villages in Dublin, dating back 1,700 years. It states that in early August the bank manager contacted the top 50 customers and there were no defections. The remainder of the top customers and high-potential customers as defined by the bank's project office were contacted during August. The bank manager notes that the bank took a lot of flack during this time when the branch stopped accepting crossed cheques and cheques drawn on other banks.
In September, the document records that customer reaction to the merger was gaining momentum and there was evidence of an organised campaign under way. The bank manager met officers from the residents' association and various projects representing the community. He reported that there was a steady flow of accounts transferring to other branches but not too many were going to competitors.
By October the bank manager noted that the bank was in the thick of the closure reaction and that things were hotting up on all fronts, particularly on the customer reaction side. He says that local politicians were galvanising support within the community and that customers were being encouraged to call to the branch and protest. On 2 October 2000, a customer rang to inform him that the bank had been denounced from the pulpit by the parish priest.
The manager also records that he invited an important customer to the all-Ireland final replay. This person, a GAA fanatic and a long-standing customer, said that he would transfer his account to the Smithfield branch to ensure that he would get a ticket to the all-Ireland final.
The date 16 October 2000 was referred to as D-day for the cessation of most of the labour-intensive, low profit, cashier transactions. A cashier noted that the customers were lining up to express their displeasure. By the end of the week, the cashiers and the customer service team were mentally and physically drained.
I commend this Bill to the House.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an t-Aire. Senator Costello has done a very simple job of exposing reality, especially in his last reference. There is a wonderful cosy mix about the benevolent bank, the banks who are just dying to loan you money to buy a car or a house. The banks portray themselves as a glamourised and romantic version of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, there to help you out of every possible loophole, provided of course you can pay for it. This is the one unstated distinction between them and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
This is about the interaction between the market and society. The market is a wonderful way to create wealth. Karl Marx accepted that more than 100 years ago. The real issue is how do you relate society to the market and what do you do when the market begins to lose the run of itself. What we have learned is that the only way, short of public control, to regulate a market, is to ensure that markets are competitive.
Every good economist, and even a bad one, can tell you that a competitive market means there must be enough participants in the market. Then, if one leaves, it does not affect the market. That is manifestly not the case in the banking sector. If one bank left, there would be a national catastrophe.
They have so many branches spread through society. The banks know that society needs them. When one of them almost went belly-up in the 1980s, society baled it out. They pretend now that it never happened. They have a degree of what Galbraith called oligopoly. This means they are not really a monopoly but they are not really a market either, they are somewhere in between.
Even within the canons of market economics, their self-aggrandisement, shown by the minimising of what they regard as uneconomical cost bases to maximise their profits, is not regarded as optimal for society. No plausible argument can be made by an advocate of the marketplace to make us believe that institutions as powerful as the two major banks should be allowed to make decisions of enormous social impact. Their interests and the interests of society at large do not and cannot overlap if they are not subject to vigorous and sustained competitive forces, which is not the case. If banks were subject to those forces they would not be able to write the cynical nonsense that Senator Costello has just read to the House.
They take such risks because they know that competitors will not take over their customers. The banks know that no company in a competitive marketplace would ever be able to get away with treating a customer the way that bank described itself as treating its customers. If the market cannot guarantee that customers are not treated in this fashion, the market has failed, and it is a classic example of market failure, as any first year economics student will know.
There is only one solution and that is light, but firm, regulation. The banks do not close all loss-making branches. There is not a student bank branch anywhere that is making money. These branches are open because of the potential profitability of their customers. The closure of branches is not about the profitability of the branch but a statement on the future of particular communities. Banks are saying that while a particular branch is making money now, there is nothing in its local community to give any hope that the people who use these branches will enable banks to make money in the future.
Yet banks queue up in my workplace, the Cork Institute of Technology, and almost come to blows on occasions, to get students to join their branch. They will not make a penny from these students when they are in college, but want their custom because students are seen as those who will make real money, with the potential for long-term profitability. The banks will take the losses, the hit, the cost of sponsorship and funding, of being everybody's benevolent sister and brother giving out money, because they know in the long term there is money to be made.
This is the basic decision that banks make when they close down a branch which they see as having no future. This is a further accumulation of a vision which divides society into those who have and those who have not. This is perfectly epitomised in my own city of Cork where you could count on one hand the number of ATMs north of the River Lee. That is where those who are considered poor live. On the south of the river there is an ATM wherever there are several shops together. That is where people with money live and they are seen as worth servicing by the banks, but one must drive for a mile or two on the north side of Cork to find an ATM. Of those ATMs on the north of the city, two are not serviced by the two major banks. There are four ATMs for the whole of Cork city north of the River Lee and that is because banks do not accept that they have social obligations. Many people tell banks that they should not think about social obligations but it is a foolish, short-term view of society which believes that institutions as big, powerful and significant in our society do not have social obligations.
We want to give a very gentle nudge to the Central Bank to ensure that as part of its brief, the physical, building-orientated manifestation of banking, rather than its Internet or telephone manifestation, remains a part of the structures of society. Bank branches are a part of the services to society and a part of what people need to live.
One can do much by Internet or by telephone banking but you cannot lodge cash or cheques in this way. Every citizen must go to a bank to lodge cash. We are not near a cashless society nor a plastic society and the degree to which we depend on notes and coins will become apparent when the euro is introduced at the turn of the year.
This is a cautious, non-radical Bill. It is simply a warning to the banks that they have social obligations and cannot pick and choose the areas of society they wish to support, as they have done by focusing on nice things such as GAA all-Ireland sponsorship. Banks have obligations not to walk away from a community because they decide that community does not count anymore. The communities within which banks are situated and where they were welcomed when they were small and less profit hungry have rights too.
The Central Bank should be the arbiter which says no to the major banks, who should be told that to close bank branches leaves a community exposed and vulnerable. The Central Bank should make it clear that this is not something that society will tolerate. It is a very small change to ask for and I hope the Government will accept the principle and we can talk about the detail later.
I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond, on behalf of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, to this Private Members' Bill, which is sponsored by Senators Costello, O'Meara and Ryan.
As the explanatory and financial memorandum explains, the purpose of the proposed Bill is to impose on the Central Bank, as the banking regulator, an obligation to consider whether to attach conditions regarding the adequacy of the branch network of a bank on the holder of a banking licence. This obligation would apply to existing licensees and to new applicants for such licences.
How to maintain appropriate levels of access to banking services at a time of major restructuring in the banking sector is a topical issue and one which reaches into the lives of many of our fellow citizens. However, I have concerns of both a general and a specific nature about how the Bill proposes to address this issue.
It is useful to consider the background and context in which the current restructuring of bank branch networks is taking place. The dynamic changes experienced in Ireland over recent years have left very few sectors of our society untouched. The banking industry, perhaps contrary to popular stereotype, has been one of the sectors which has changed most in recent decades. It is a sector which has grown rapidly, mainly due to the growth of the IFSC.
Retail banking products have traditionally been delivered through an extensive branch structure. The physical evidence of this is the architectural presence of banking halls on our main streets throughout the country. These impressive structures symbolise the stability of the banks which operate from within, yet also serve to distract from the nature of the businesses to which they are home, businesses which have to react to the market and which must move with the times to remain competitive.
The nature of the industry itself is also changing rapidly. With new investment outlets available to consumers, the banks not only have to rely on deposit-taking, but also must raise funds on the wholesale markets. One of the effects of this new environment is the need for banks to continually keep their branch presence under review and to monitor the costs associated with each branch.
Over the last century, the number of branches and sub-branches in Ireland fluctuated between 700 and 1,000. As economic activity altered and as populations moved, this number varied. Figures up to the end of 1999 show that overall branch numbers were stable at around 900 nationwide. The growth of new suburbs and the development of retail shopping centres has seen the opening of new bank branches in or near these centres, while some branches would have closed for various reasons.
The impact of technology on Irish banking and banking internationally cannot be understated. Today we receive a host of banking services on a 24 hour basis which a few decades ago would have been unimaginable. All Members present probably remember the first time they used an ATM and can recall the sense of wonder that it was possible to get cash on a weekend or late at night. Today, not alone can we access our cash while in Ireland, but we can use the same card to withdraw money from our accounts while travelling abroad.
Back home the introduction of the laser card system has meant that we no longer need to carry money to pay cash. Instead with a swipe of the card our accounts can be debited and we can even request to be given some cash back—
Try to buy a pint with a laser card.
—a facility which can render that trip to the cash machine on a wet and windy night a thing of the past.
Try to buy a pint with a Laser card. Reality dawns very quickly.
I have seen it done. It is increasingly the practice for salaries to be credited centrally to our bank accounts by electronic money transfer, removing the necessity to travel to our branches to lodge our pay cheques.
Telephone and Internet banking offer the consumer the opportunity to transact much of their banking business without ever having to enter the door of their branch, to the extent even of negotiating a loan over the telephone. In addition, these services are available 24 hours of the day, seven days a week, a significant addition to the banks' customer service and a far cry from those distant days when banking business could only be transacted between ten in the morning and three in the afternoon, with a break for lunch.
If the effect of these changes has been to change our relationships with our banks, their effect on the banks themselves has been even more profound. Huge investment in technology has been necessary to allow for the introduction of these additional services. The consequent changes in the way payments can be organised and the facilitation of remote access banking change the environment within which traditional banking, including branch banking, operates.
We are beginning to see some of these changes at present. Where once bank branches worked virtually autonomously, in the more recent past the processing of payments and the provision of credit has become increasingly integrated and centralised. As so much of what had been traditionally the preserve of the branch is done elsewhere, we must expect that remote electronic delivery of banking services will become at least as important as branch based delivery over the period ahead. However, branches will continue to play a key role in the distribution of banking products, as information centres and as flagships for the bank. As some Internet banking ventures have discovered, many customers still like the comfort of bricks and mortar branches, even if they do not visit them often. Nevertheless, commercial realities will increase the pressure for branch rationalisation and consolidation. I will return to this point.
Our banks are also facing increased competition from new foreign based entrants to the banking scene. The EU has a single market for financial products, which is being deepened over the current period as a result of its financial services action plan. There are no regulatory barriers to banks from other EU countries competing in Ireland or, indeed, to Irish banks operating in any other EU country. Under EU legislation, a bank may operate in Ireland on the basis of a licence granted by another member state and without having to apply to the Central Bank of Ireland for a local licence. That is an important point in the context of the Bill introduced by the Senators.
It is worth dwelling on this point for a moment. It means that a foreign based bank can offer its services over the telephone to customers in Ireland and without having to establish a branch or branch network here. More Internet and telephone banks can be expected to look to the Irish market in the future without incurring the cost of developing a high street presence and while being supervised and regulated in another EU member state. The effect of this over time will be greatly to increase the competitive environment within which Irish banks operate.
However, in publishing this Bill the Senators have highlighted an extremely important issue, namely, the quality of the service which banks offer their customers. The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, raised this question in his address to the Institute of Bankers in Ireland on 2 November last, asking: "Have the Irish banks got a long-term commitment to successful competition by providing a quality service?" The Minister noted that many of the public were not convinced that the banks did have such a commitment and reminded that audience of the findings of his strategic report on the banking sector, published by the Department of Finance last August. That report saw a need to monitor the performance of the banks on branch reorganisation, noting that it was in their commercial interests to manage such reorganisation so as to minimise the inconvenience to customers.
Key to the maintenance and encouragement of public confidence in the banking sector is ensuring reasonable access to banking services for all, not just the better off or those living in urban areas. In this regard, the Department of Finance has suggested to the Irish Bankers' Federation that it, as the umbrella organisation for the banking sector, should evaluate industry practice and consider publishing a code of practice on branch restructuring. The federation is considering this suggestion and is hopeful that a basis for progress can be found.
Furthermore, the Government's decision last week to set up within the Central Bank a new structure for financial services regulation in Ireland will be an essential element in ensuring that Irish banks are more responsive to the consumer. The new body, the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority – the IFSRA – will, as part of its mandate, put consumer issues at the heart of the regulatory regime for the financial sector and, for the first time, give the financial services regulator a legal mandate to protect consumer interests. This will be assured through the creation of a post of customer protection director. The IFSRA will also have ancillary structures such as a consumer panel which will be a consultative panel dedicated to consumer interests which, it is expected, will provide an effective forum for issues to be raised and analysed. In addition, the IFSRA will take up the relevant recommendations of the report on strategic issues facing the banking sector.
I am confident the Government's proposals in this area will lead to a renewed focus on consumer issues in the banking sector while at the same time facilitating the development of a competitive modern financial system. I appreciate the concerns that arise at local level as a result of recent and proposed branch closures. I am certainly aware of them in my constituency. Nonetheless, banks are privately owned commercial entities operating in a highly competitive environment and should not be required to maintain a fixed number of branches, no more than a supermarket chain or a petrol company could be obliged to maintain a specific presence in a geographic area regardless of commercial realities.
Such requirements are in any case difficult, if not impossible, to define. How many constitutes a "sufficient" number of branches? How far away from each other can branches be? What happens if a competitor opens or closes a branch in a particular geographic location? What are the "reasonable requirements" of a bank's customers? To attempt to regulate on these points, in addition to being an extremely complex task, would represent an undue interference in the operation of the open market and would undermine the competitive positions of Irish banks. Banks must be free to have due regard to commercial realities when meeting the needs of their customers and the marketplace.
I acknowledge the legitimate concerns which many express with regard to the restructuring of the branch networks of the main banks and the Government is firmly of the view that such restructuring has to be done in a sensible and intelligent way. Any decisions should be made in partnership with their customers. I note that the Bill would have legal effect only on those banks operating under a licence issued by the Central Bank of Ireland. Banks supervised and regulated elsewhere but selling into the Irish market would not be subject to the terms of this Bill.
Banks regulated here are not only competing in the management of technological change, but also competing with foreign based and foreign licensed banks. A key element to the maintenance of a strong and vital banking industry which continues to have a presence in our towns and villages is ensuring that all banks compete on a level playing field. The decision to open or close any bank branch is part of that institution's normal commercial activity and should not be regulated by the Central Bank, particularly if a bank's main competitors cannot be made to be similarly accountable.
In the circumstances, the approach proposed in this Bill is neither fair nor workable. Instead, I direct the Members' attention to recent initiatives taken or announced by the Minister for Finance. The recommendations of the strategic report on banking issues will be pursued. I also look forward to the advent of the ISFRA, which will improve the focus on consumer concerns. For these reasons, the Government will vote against the Bill.
The purpose of the Bill before the House is to amend section 10 of the Central Bank Act, 1971. The new subsection proposes that, when regulating the banking system, the Central Bank is to ensure that a bank has and maintains a sufficient number of branches and other offices in the State to meet the requirements of customers of that bank. The Private Members' Bill is introduced by the Labour Party. Senator Costello has always been steadfast in the view that legislation should be introduced to force banks to get Central Bank approval before closing branches.
This debate comes at an opportune time. It is only days since the Tánaiste announced the establishment of a new authority which will be known as the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. In a statement accompanying the announcement the Tánaiste said it was a great day for consumers, the financial services industry and for public administration in Ireland. She continued: "This is a win for consumers because, for the first time, the consumer is being placed explicitly at the heart of financial service regulation. Our goal is customer focused financial regulation, one port of call for financial customers." This statement contrasts with the record of Irish banks which are reducing the number of branches available to the public. Bank of Ireland has started to close 65 of its 300 branches in the Republic. Allied Irish Banks, National Irish Bank, Irish Permanent and TSB are also tweaking their networks giving priority to branch closures and relocations. Job losses and pay cuts are also being proposed by most banks. Closing branches will severely affect some customers, particularly those in the inner city and rural areas.
The banking system relies heavily on new technology. However, there is no point trying to force people away from paper transactions in favour of electronic or telephone banking if the result is disgruntled customers. It might be more appropriate to first generate customer interest in the new facilities and familiarise customers with their advantages. Arbitrarily removing and reducing facilities and services will not make any new friends for the banks.
I accept that like many other businesses, banks face the dilemma of whose interests they should serve. Is their primary function to produce returns and profits for shareholders or should their policies and actions take into account the interests of all stakeholders – shareholders, employees and customers? In making this decision all businesses have to weigh up the short and long-term considerations. Sharply cutting costs may raise returns for shareholders in the short term but if the cutbacks result in disgruntled customers or demotivated employees the longer term result would be a fall in returns for shareholders.
It appears that all financial institutions are radically changing the way they do business. The focus is on delivering traditional banking services cheaply via the Internet, telephones or automated cash machines. Bank officials who have been with banks for the past 20 or 30 years must find it difficult to adjust to their different roles. The days when they cashed cheques, lodged deposits and updated account balances are long gone. Before Christmas, Bank of Ireland introduced a strict policy on cashing cheques and will now only oblige certain customers. All these changes might be in banks' interests in terms of increasing profits but they are not in the interests of customers.
The profits and associated charges of Irish banks are the highest in Europe and are built on cuts in customer services and branch closures. The icing on the cake is a guaranteed 4.5% annual reduction in corporation tax until 2003. For some time the Minister for Finance has been gently wagging his finger at the banks reminding them of their social responsibilities in return for such Government largesse. However, the banks do not seem to be paying any attention to what he is saying. Banks are situated in ivory counting houses. The bottom line is the only measure that matters and to hell with the ordinary paper using consumer.
Banks are attempting to off-load unprofitable, paper based elements of their business to An Post. They wish to create a direct debit bill paying system which will take the human clutter out of their branches. This is the same human clutter on which they made their profits for many years. Banks are abrogating their social responsibilities to customers and this is not good enough. I hope the Bill in some way rectifies that situation.
I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and the banking situation which, to some extent, gave rise to it.
I accept that the Labour Party's intention behind this Bill is admirable but it would not work in practice as it would only apply to three banks. Other banks would not come under the ambit of the Bill, including the Ulster Bank which is regulated from the UK. All other banking institutions are regulated by the state from which they come. Therefore, this Bill could not achieve the Labour Party's objectives.
I agree with much of the comments of Senators Costello and Ryan. However, I differ on how they could achieve their objectives through a Bill such as this. There is a conflict of interest in that banks exist to make money and the position of customers comes second. Many of the debates on this issue in the House last year highlighted the fact that the Central Bank played no more than a prudential role as regards banks. Senator Joe Doyle and I spoke about the fact that the Central Bank played no role in protecting customers.
In the past few days the Minister for Finance and the Government announced the establishment of an financial services regulator. Only when this authority is in place, including the proposed customer protection officer, will there be any protection for customers. The new authority will have the prudential role previously played by the Central Bank and a new function whereby there will be a customer protection officer. This is an important step forward.
Banks have made enormous profits over the years and I do not understand some of their decisions which seem to make life difficult for their customers. It is extraordinary that a customer of a commercial bank cannot cash a cheque in a branch of the same bank in a different town. This is a recent decision taken by Bank of Ireland but I am not sure if other banks have taken a similar decision. This is a great injustice, an inconvenience and is in no way customer friendly. The bank stands condemned for this practice.
I understand Senator Costello's frustration in his bid to support the public in its attempt to retain branches in Stoneybatter and Cabra. I was involved in a similar campaign in Strokestown, County Roscommon, when we tried to pursued National Irish Bank to keep its branch open. Newspapers have highlighted similar campaigns in many other towns and villages.
There would be a downside to this Bill if enacted in that it would make the three Irish banks involved uncompetitive against other banks. The Bill attempts to restrict these three banks in the making of commercial decisions concerning the location of branches. No similar restriction would be placed on banks licensed and regulated from other EU member states, including the Ulster Bank. We could put an imposition on those banks to keep branches open in a particular area, but that could do them harm in the long term and make them uncompetitive. That is one disadvantage.
The Minister for Finance spoke on this matter recently to the Irish Bankers' Federation and he suggested a code of practice which would address the issue being debated here tonight. Perhaps that is a way forward. We should call on the banks to be more customer friendly. They can adopt such an approach because of the massive profits they make. While I understand and sympathise with the intention of Senator Costello and his colleagues, it is not a practical way to do business and it would not work. I agree with the statement by the Minister of State. My party will vote against this Bill on Second Stage because it cannot be implemented in a practical way.
I wish to share my time with Senator Norris.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome any opportunity to debate the future of Irish banking and its regulation. No one would disagree with the appalling abuses these banks have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate on the people and the taxpayers. I share all the sentiments expressed by Senators Costello, Finneran and Joe Doyle about the difficulties the banks have imposed on communities, people and taxpayers and the embarrassment these institutions have caused us as a nation. There is no doubt that the banks are trying to close a chapter of shame. The institutionalised theft of public money has taken place in recent years and the banks are saying that is now over, we will pay it off and we will open a new chapter. However, leopards do not change their spots. Banks encouraged people to break the law and people did so by not paying their tax. The remedies for that are what we are partly considering tonight.
Banks also abused and continue to abuse customers in terms of credit cards. They have deceived customers about the returns they are getting. They play on people's ignorance by offering returns which, by sleight of hand, look more than they are. I think of managed funds and other returns they are currently offering which take much explaining to people as they are not what they seem. There are currently advertisements in the media suggesting that preferential tax free instruments are available to people if they accept certain offerings at a particular time, but that is not the case. I do not want to go into detail because it would not be fair. One institution is doing that at present. The suggestion is that they are paying less tax, but they are paying more. That is the way banks behave and always will behave.
They also rob people on foreign exchange, yet the Government is doing nothing about it. They are robbing them at the airports and on euros. They made larger profits when we entered the euro than they were making before. They are ripping customers off on euros when we are meant to have a united currency. Yet no one is doing anything about it. It passes from one person to another.
Banks are not saints but institutionalised sinners. That is one of the problems we must confront. However, this Bill does not answer that requirement. We should do something about credit cards. It is inexcusable that 18% or 19% is being paid when inflation is running low. That is profiteering of the worst type. We should do something about sleight of hand advertisements which prey on the vulnerable by offering interest rates which are unacceptable. However, having read this Bill, it is not in the interest of the State, the taxpayers or the shareholders.
We must remember one thing about banks. They are not and have not been charitable organisations. They should be policed in order to be transparent and so that abuses are stamped out. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot have a bank whose existence is based on commerciality and say it must be a charity at the same time. We are trying to reform a monster and all we can do is contain it. The Government should contain its excesses. We cannot direct privately-owned institutions to act in a way which is not in the interests of the shareholders. I do not hold shares in any of the banks and I would love to see what Senator Costello is doing here. As I do not have a stake in it, I would love to see the banks behaving in a philanthropic way. However, we cannot have shareholders and have that at the same time because the shareholders are looking for profit. There is nothing wrong with profit. It is a good thing and a free market concept. However, the banks' profits cannot be diluted by saying they can make a profit as long as they do things which are anti-profit.
This Bill is anti-profit. Senator Costello should set up a State bank. He should bring the ICC back into the State and tell it to operate in a way which is socially acceptable. Banks do not operate in such a way. They may give a few thousand pounds to political parties in what they say is the interests of democracy. However, it is in self-interest and in the interest of backing the right horse in the next Government race. That is the way these monsters behave. We cannot expect them to act like saints or in the interests of the community. We cannot tell them to open a branch in one place and close one somewhere else. We cannot tell them they can make a profit here and a loss there. That is the role of a semi-State company or an organisation with deliberate State controlled social objectives. That is laudable but we cannot do it with banks owned by shareholders and pension funds who look for one thing only, namely, profit.
This type of middle road will not work in a free market. I applaud Senator Costello's objectives but the State has no business pushing the private sector in a certain direction. If the State wants to do that, it should set up its own apparatus. However, it will not have a vibrant private sector if it works on these principles.
I thank Senator Ross for sharing his time with me. However, as he has turned out to be a banker, the three seconds I have left would not be sufficient. Perhaps I could speak after Senator Cox.
I am delighted I am not speaking after Senator Norris. While I applaud the Labour Party for trying to address what it sees as some of the problems in the banking industry, it is not doing so in the most informed way. I accept its bona fides in trying to address this problem, but it is foolish to think that this Bill will solve the problem.
Various speakers have mentioned problems that exist in the banking industry, including policies and procedures that neither the Government nor society at large are happy with. The rates of interest that are being charged on balances by credit card companies are some of the highest in the EU. The small print is not big enough to inform the public that if they only pay off a small amount they will be charged interest on the outstanding balance. Credit cards are pushed from one promoter to another and, thus, while cards are withdrawn because people have not exercised self-discipline in using them, within three to six months people can be offered, probably by the same institution, the opportunity of applying for another credit card. These problems exist and I do not underestimate the severity of them.
Banks are now being asked to be more honest with their customers concerning personal loans. It is not fair to offer money all the time to young people who think they will be able to repay a mortgage, and personal loans for a car and furniture. Lending institutions must take a more responsible approach towards granting personal loans, which should not be pushed on people. It is inappropriate to send out mailshots to young people, aged 19 to 21, in their first jobs, offering them personal loans of up to £10,000 once they sign a request. That is not the way to do business. Banks have a responsibility to examine how they conduct their business, but we will not solve these types of problems by the Bill that is the subject of this motion.
While I object to the erosion of the banking network in rural areas due to branch closures, which is happening under the umbrella of commerciality and the need to make profits, this Bill is not the way to tackle the issue. As the Minister pointed out, introducing this amendment to the Central Bank Bill would place a noose around the necks of banks that are licensed by the Central Bank but it would not affect other banks that are operating here, such as the Ulster Bank or British-based banks. In recent days, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has urged the banks to examine what they are doing. There is no point in providing a service only in areas where people have easy access to branches. We should put pressure on banks to remember that they have customers outside urban areas.
I disagree with the encashment policy that has been introduced by various banks whereby one must lodge a cheque to one's account and cannot cash it. In Dublin just before Christmas a bank refused to cash a cheque for me. I was told that I had to lodge it to my account in Galway and could not have any cash until the following day. I have a fundamental objection to that because it is my money which I am lodging in the bank. The banks should seriously examine this issue and I am surprised there has not been stronger opposition to it.
How many people think about the difference laser cards make to everyone? It is safer to have such a card in one's wallet because it obviates the need to carry cash. The days of carrying cash are going and technology is bringing about significant changes, including Internet banking. More and more personal and business customers are conducting their banking business over the Internet or telephone, thus avoiding queues in branches. Many of the major banks have fairly technology-friendly Internet and phone banking systems, which is a welcome change. If we were to proceed with the legislation that is proposed, however, it would be unfair to Irish banks, forcing them to operate in a market that is free and open for other banking institutions.
As Senator Ross said, businesses need to change with the market in order to compete and the Government cannot impinge on that situation by placing restrictions on Irish banks. In recognising that there are problems in the financial services sector, the Government has proposed a new statutory financial services regulatory authority, under the control of a regulator. This demonstrates that the Government has consumer issues at heart. The establishment of a statutory post of financial services regulator will address the concerns that have been so well enunciated by the Labour Party in this debate. We cannot toy around with the fundamental elements of commerciality, however, whether for banks or any other business sector. There is no point in being in business if one cannot make a profit. Profit is not a dirty word. Banks may have branches in every town and village, but if they are not making money they will close anyway.
While the intention of the motion before the House is well founded, this is not the way to go about it. Unfortunately, although I agree with the sentiment behind the Bill, I cannot support it. We cannot hold Irish banks to ransom and allow other banks, which are not licensed by the Central Bank, free reign throughout the country. I compliment the Minister and the Department of Finance on the initiatives they have taken in trying to ensure that consumers are better protected than they have been in the past.
I hope the new regulatory framework will take into account the issues I have raised in this debate, including loans, credit cards and a better service for customers.
I strongly support the Bill and if, for technical reasons, it is not possible for it to pass Second Stage, I will look to the Government to introduce legislation that will address the problem. Perhaps Senator Ross has come up with the correct solution which is to create a State bank. Why not have a State bank? I recognise that it may be difficult in commercial situations to force something upon a publicly quoted company because shareholders' rights are involved. There may be a legal and constitutional angle but I am worried by this kind of development. It happened in Ballymun and Stoneybatter, and it militates against the interests of ordinary people. It is all part of a clearly recognisable process that is happening throughout the country. We have seen the closure of rural post offices and Garda stations, while in city areas gardaí on the beat have been removed. As elected representatives, we should be addressing these socially negative factors if institutions such as the banks will not do so. Internet banking is of no use to people who are not computer literate. It attacks the most vulnerable sections of the community, the poor and elderly who do not have access to computers and computer skills. For that reason it is a very negative way to go.
Senator Ross mentioned credit card interest rates in excess of 18%. I understand that some institutions charge much more than that, perhaps 23% or 24%, but people simply do not realise it. When has any of us seen a bank statement recently? We are not entitled to our own property any more. We used to get our cashed cheques back. I recently ordered Christmas cards from Amnesty International and asked if I could pay for them by credit card as I was going abroad. For some reason, however, it is not possible to do so because Amnesty International does not have the facility. When I returned I was surprised to receive a bill for £200 which I thought was a mistake. It turned out that I owed Amnesty International £200 but I could not get a proper statement from the credit card company. I asked them for one and they sent me a statement saying that I had spent X number of pounds in a month, but they did not provide me with the expenditure breakdown I wanted. I wrote them a clear letter seeking the breakdown. They sent me four more statements which only contained a total and not a breakdown. Somebody put a handwritten note on one saying I had not paid Amnesty International the £200 about which I was worried. That was what I wanted to know. Am I not entitled, as a customer, to that information?
I was provoked to contribute to the debate by Senator Costello's contribution and his reference to the Bank of Ireland newsletter. It portrays an awful, grim atmosphere as if the author thought it was, in some curious way, funny. It begins in the Killiney Court Hotel. I very much doubt many of the elderly and disadvantaged customers of the Stoneybatter branch spend a great deal of time at little sponsored bashes in the corporate hotel. There was a discussion about the 3C pro gramme at the hotel and the tone of the article is extraordinary. It states:
Last day! Atmosphere very surreal. We presented a memento to the last customer to be served at the branch at 4.10 p.m... In summary, it has been a very difficult 14 weeks but we came through it very well. I am honoured to have worked with the staff in Stoneybatter, every one of whom was colossal from start to finish.
I have news for the bank. That feeling is not reciprocated. A neighbour of mine haunts skips and three or four days ago, in a skip outside the Bank of Ireland head office on Baggot Street, he came across a bound copy of confidential reports about attitudes in banks, including the attitudes of the staff. It contained many idiotic corporate clichés such as "Would you go the extra mile for the bank?" Of course, 98% of the staff, because their eyes were glued to the promotion process, said they would, but when they were asked whether they thought the bank, and this branch in particular, served well the community in which it found itself, 10% said "Yes". That is interesting. This is the perception of people working within the bank about the operation of the bank and how it serves the community. It is a disgrace.
Banks have a responsibility to people in Ballymun and Stoneybatter to look after their needs and to ensure elderly people are not placed at risk by having to transport cash over long distances. Senator Costello and the Labour Party have done the House a service by introducing this Bill, even if it may not be possible for technical reasons to pass it.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He has explained why it is not possible to accept the Bill, but I compliment Senator Costello and his colleagues for introducing it. One of the reasons I will not agree to its passage is that it is not broad enough.
Let us agree Second Stage and then widen it.
Many issues have come to light in the banking system in recent years. At one stage the Tánaiste was before the House on an almost daily basis discussing problems in the banking sector. Recently the Bank of Ireland announced profits of £940 million and maintained that only 50% were earned in Ireland. I recall criticism of the banking sector three years ago when Bank of Ireland was earning profits in the region of £500 million.
I am annoyed by the anti-consumer attitude of banks. I met Senator Ross at Dublin Airport last Monday week. At the time I was a little distressed having been told there was no room for me on my flight to Brussels. I eventually negotiated my way onto another flight and received a cheque for £60 from Aer Rianta. I went to the Bank of Ireland branch at the airport to cash the cheque, which was not a problem. However, I had another cheque from Eircom in my pocket which the official refused to cash when I presented it, even though I produced my passport and flight tickets. I was fortunate to have sufficient funds to cover my trip. Money laundering is the basis for the banks doing this.
However, there is no intelligence and cop-on in the banking system anymore. That is reflected by the staff. When I set up my accountancy practice 25 years ago I was inundated by bank managers seeking business, trying to take business from other banks and opening branches all over the country, yet today they will hardly talk to me if they meet me on the street because they used me for that purpose. All the good managers have gone through early retirement. One wonders how the current managers got into the bank in the first place. That is a general sweeping statement, but that is the reality in many branches.
We have discussed economic and monetary union on a number of occasions over the past few years. We thought it would be advantageous to the consumer as foreign currency charges would be removed. I paid a fee to buy foreign currency on my way to Brussels and I paid a bigger fee when I changed what I had left on my return.
Other issues in the banking system included the DIRT regime and the NIB problem, particularly in the Carrick-on-Shannon branch where the consumer had no protection whatsoever. They received a refund belatedly. When one reflects on that issue, one can only think the Central Bank's function is to advise the Government on the direction of the economy and interest rates. There is no control over the banking system.
There should be more comprehensive regulation of banks. Senator Norris referred to credit card companies. He is correct that such companies charge interest rates up to 24% and consumers receive the odd letter in the post advising them that if they switch companies the interest rate will reduce to 19%, yet credit card companies only pay 2% or 3% in deposit interest to banks.
I am annoyed in general by the banking system. I am not a socialist but I am bothered by the large profits earned by banks, given the manner in which they treat the consumer. When small business people exceed their overdraft limit they pay a debit charge of £3.50 on their bank account. Some people I know have paid up to £1,500 per annum in extra bank charges whereas if they were given an increased overdraft, they would not have a problem.
If one falls a month behind on a nominal payment on a credit card account, one is called by a junior employee who has been recruited by the credit card company to make such telephone calls. The computer does not recognise that a person has overlooked payments for one or two months and they receive telephone calls or letters from solicitors. Some people cannot repay a balance of £4,000 or £5,000 on their credit card but if they make the minimum payment every month nobody comes near them. The banking system does not have the ability to see the wood from the trees.
Last week the Minister for Finance and the Tánaiste made an announcement regarding a new financial regulator. Seán Fitzpatrick, the chairman of the Irish Bankers' Federation, came out totally against the regulator, saying he or she will be anti-consumer. He has requested that the current regime remain in place whereby bankers continue as members on the voluntary body which investigates financial matters and if a consumer wins an appeal, £30,000 is the largest sum he or she can receive whereas the scheme to be introduced under the new proposal provides for an open-ended award to the consumer. He described the proposal as anti-consumer, but the reality is that he wants the cosy cartel to continue in every way.
We must tackle the banks. When I came here for the first time three and a half years ago the banks were making half their current profits. Yet we thought when we joined EMU there would be no more charges, and hopefully this will be the case from next year, though I am sure the banks will find some other way of charging. Now more than ever we need some regulation. I cannot support the Bill, much as I would like to.
Hopefully something better and more stringent will be put in place to protect consumers such as the ordinary housewife who may not have a bank account and whose husband may have bought Eircom shares for her. Because she has no bank account she will not be able to cash a cheque. Banks have got away with far too much for far too long. I was sucked in over 20 years ago and if I knew then what I know now I would have had nothing to do with them. As I said, I cannot support the Bill but I hope that in future there will be far better regulations to deal with banks.
Some parts of the debate to which I listened were excellent. In general there is a feeling that ordinary people do not count in terms of banks. Years ago banks were part of social life, just like the post office and other community businesses. Recently banks have been putting people out the door rather than encouraging them in. The fact that cheques must be drawn on the bank where it is presented is one of the problems faced by many people. PMG cheques are accepted, but if one is always paid by AIB, the difficulty in going to Bank of Ireland, where one might have always banked, is that money has to be lodged to one's account and cleared which imposes a restriction on ordinary people. I like to go to my bank, meet those working there and have a chat, and when I raised this matter I was asked if I ever suffered from "chequeitis", a reference to a person in a queue trying to cash a cheque who gets madder and madder when they cannot get to the teller's window.
The entry of the Bank of Scotland to the Irish banking system has introduced a new dimension to the way banks must do business. The Bank of Scotland is undercutting the rates of ordinary banks which have standard facilities for ordinary people, including a branch system, and is providing serious competition. In terms of costs and profits banks must have an eye on shareholders and annual profits, which is why they have become less people friendly. On the other hand, it is possible to telephone reduced rate numbers – 1850-365365 in the case of Bank of Ireland – to get an update on one's account and how things stand. There is an excellent system whereby one can go through all the banking transactions carried out over any period, which is constructive and good. This is how things are going in the world and we must be part of it. There are good developments, therefore, in terms of technology, but banks are losing their identity. In future we will not know our bank managers – it will be a person with no human contact but who has all the technology at their fingertips and will not be in a position to make judgments about people.
The good point was made that local bank managers could and would give support to people who did not have the wherewithal to carry out a good business plan or who were worth a chance. In future will the banking system have the specialised knowledge of the local banking system?
This is a good Bill and I welcome it. Part of the reason I wish to contribute is the issue of interest charges on credit cards. The level of interest charged by some of these companies is disgraceful. I think it was the chairman of Allied Irish Bank who last week commented on the radio that in his view people use credit cards as cash cards for one month and more or less pay their balance immediately. Most of the evidence I read points in the opposite direction, with millions of pounds accumulated in credit card debt. Shopkeepers say that over Christmas credit cards are flashed everywhere and people in January are fearful of the post. Sometimes statements arrive on 6 or 7 January, a critical time when people do not have money.
There is a need for consumers to be protected, certainly in terms of the interest charged by banks. The risk banks take with clients is very low. The rate at which banks get money is 3% or 4% while they make four or five times that through exceptionally high interest rates.
One thing which might encourage people not to use their credit cards so much would be a legal requirement for credit card statements to have a running total of interest paid in the previous 12 months. Then people would realise how much money was being lifted out of their pockets by credit card companies.
I know credit unions are separate, but they perform the function of the people's bank. They are very useful local institutions. As commercial banks move from smaller towns and villages, credit unions and, hopefully, An Post will move in. Most villages have post offices and An Post is developing an alternative to the banking system. If they are freed to do so, as I believe is hap pening, An Post can fill the gap by improving their facilities and the services they offer to ordinary consumers. We are talking about the ordinary Joe Soap who is not a businessman, does not have an awful amount of money but who wants a locally based banking system. An Post can usefully and successfully improve services and thereby prosper.
This has been an excellent debate and I welcome the speech by the Minister. I also welcome the improvements being made in terms of consumer protection in the banking system. The bottom line is that we are not getting a good deal from the banks, particularly in terms of facilities in smaller towns or the unacceptably high level of interest being charged. It is time for the Oireachtas and those who use the system to put a stop to their gallop and to place more restrictions on them, including the interest levels they can charge on credit cards. People would think twice if a clear figure was given on each bill showing the interest paid in the previous 12 months. The so-called flexible friend is not at all flexible; it is putting many people into significant debt and we must seriously tackle this.
I thank the Minister and Senators Doyle, Cox, Ross, Norris, Bonner, O'Dowd and Finneran for contributing. I was gratified to hear that all without exception supported the general thrust of what I am proposing. They want better customer services and were critical of the manner in which the banks are currently providing services. Some speakers had reservations as to whether the Bill would satisfy that objective. Indeed, Senator Bonner wanted the Bill to go much further in terms of its provisions and like the others he was very trenchant in his criticism of the manner in which banks conduct their business with customers.
I remind Senators of what we are seeking to do. This is quite a modest proposal. It is not a heavy handed control or regulatory mechanism. We already have a prudential role under the Central Bank in licensing the banks and in terms of regulating how they carry out their business in a prudent financial, bonded fashion. I want to marry a social dimension to that. We are only dealing with money because we are dealing with customers, with people. Unless we do that we are not doing our duty as legislators but how we do it is the question. If the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, has better ideas than I do I would love to hear them. They certainly have not been forthcoming.
I welcome the establishment of the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. What is being proposed is very much akin to what I am seeking to do in this legislation. The Minister of State, Deputy Cullen, indicates that: "The Department of Finance has suggested to the Irish Bankers' Federation that it, as the umbrella organisation for the banking sector, should evaluate industry practice and consider publishing a code of practice on branch restructuring." There is no sign of that and by the sound of what the president of the Irish Bankers Federation is saying in relation to regulatory matters it is not likely to come. The Minister further states:
The Government is firmly of the view that such restructuring has to be done in a sensible and intelligent way. Any decisions should be made in partnership with their customers.
That is exactly what I am looking for in this legislation. There should be a code of practice. I want criteria to be established. The relevant regulatory body to do that is the new IFSRA or the Central Bank which will have umbrella responsibility in relation to this. Surely we can incorporate my proposals in the IFSRA when it becomes a statutory body.
One or two people said it might be difficult to take on board what I am saying here. Senators Ross and Cox talked about the possibility that it might interfere with competition. The best way to deal with competition is to ensure that you have a loyal and reliable clientele. If you have a satisfied customer base then you can take on any competition. It is the customers who provide the funding. I am not satisfied that that is the reason the banks are closing. I think it is largely fear and bad planning. There is a fear that the Bank of Scotland coming in with more competitive interest rates is going to eat into the market in a big way. The response is to close down branches to get rid of overheads. They get rid of face to face service with customers, retrench and consolidate. It is a short-sighted conclusion to draw and one that results in a loss of customer confidence, loyalty and service.
I see from an internal document, the diary of the manager of the Stoneybatter branch, that the bank was not loss making:
We ended September on a real high when the half-year figures showed Stoneybatter as the number one branch in Dublin for performance against targets in insurance and investment activity. Our targets were fully achieved.
That is not the type of argument to put forward for closing down a branch. Number one in Dublin? There has been bad planning.
It must have been jealous.
One must remember that not so many years ago the banks were competing to open branches. Now they are competing to close them. It is bad planning and has nothing to do with competition. The Stoneybatter bank had an AIB branch beside it so there are no competition fears there.
Everyone in this House has expressed dissatisfaction with the manner in which our national banks conduct their business. Abuses have taken place, there has been a lack of service and high charges have been imposed. Everyone here is looking for action by the Government but I see no sign that action is forthcoming. I cannot see why the Government is not prepared to accept this Bill and give it a Second Reading. If there are proposals for amending and improving it let us take them on Committee Stage, but first let us see an indication that this Government intends to reform the banking system. For that reason I am commending this Bill to the House and I will be putting it to a vote.
Burke, Paddy.Caffrey, Ernie.Coghlan, Paul.Connor, John.Costello, Joe.Doyle, Joe.Hayes, Tom.Henry, Mary.
Jackman, Mary.Keogh, Helen.Norris, David.O'Dowd, Fergus.Ridge, Thérèse.Ryan, Brendan.Taylor-Quinn, Madeleine.
Bohan, Eddie.Bonner, Enda.Callanan, Peter.Cox, Margaret.Cregan, John.Dardis, John.Finneran, Michael.Fitzgerald, Tom.Fitzpatrick, Dermot.Gibbons, Jim.Glynn, Camillus.Kett, Tony.Kiely, Daniel.Kiely, Rory.
Lanigan, Mick.Leonard, Ann.Lydon, Don.Mooney, Paschal.Moylan, Pat.O'Brien, Francis.O'Donovan, Denis.Ó Fearghail, Seán.Ó Murchú, Labhrás.Ormonde, Ann.Quill, Máirín.Ross, Shane.Walsh, Jim.
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 tomorrow morning.