Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus déanaim comhghairdeas leis fosta. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Michael D'Arcy, is very welcome to the House. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him all the best in his new rule. I call Senator Conway-Walsh to speak on the Bill.
Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland (Amendment) Bill 2014: Second Stage
I thank the Acting Chairman. I thank the Minister for State for coming to the House. I congratulate him on his new role and wish him well.
I am pleased to move this Bill in the Seanad. My colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, brought forward the Bill and it received unanimous support in the Dáil. I hope it can win the same support in this House on Second Stage.
Central to the urgency of this Bill are the families waiting for it to be enacted and that is why we wanted all Stages to be taken tonight. However, we respect the fact the Government and other Senators have indicated they want to include amendments. I ask for co-operation in prioritising and facilitating the taking of the remaining Stages as soon as possible.
There are families watching and urging us to progress this Bill and put in place a timeframe for it to be passed. Some Senators probably have met families in their constituency offices who are locked out of the Financial Services Ombudsman's system. The lockout clause, the so-called six-year rule, is the main target for this Bill. It will remove the rule that a consumer cannot make a complaint against a financial institution, which is a deeply unjust one. Over the past five years 3,000 people have been refused because of the rule. That is the official figure but all sides accept the real figure is much higher. People know about the rule so do not apply. Alternatively, when they ring the office of the ombudsman, they are told about the rule and so they never officially apply. The bottom line is we must get rid of the six-year rule. We will get into the detail on later Stages about how that is to be done. Our side wants the greatest possible number of people to benefit from this change.
A limiting definition of a long-term product that lets people down should be resisted. In 2014, the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, published its report entitled Redressing the Imbalance - A study of legal protections available for consumers of credit and other financial services in Ireland. Deputy Pearse Doherty engaged with FLAC to get its well-researched and consumer-centred recommendations into law. The main aims can be found in the report. It is a tribute to FLAC that this Bill has won widespread support.
Senators might be aware that the Government has produced its own legislation. It is broader legislation that merges the offices of the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Pensions Ombudsman. We will get our chance to scrutinise that Bill at a later stage when it comes before us. Clearly, it is in the interests of all, especially consumers, that the two Bills are complementary. It is no coincidence that the Government's Bill has followed hot on the heels of Deputy Pearse Doherty's Bill.
I will now clearly address the sections of the Bill. Section 1 contains the definitions, as normal. Section 2 contains the definitions of long-term financial service. Sections 2 and 5 remove the six-year rule. The definition is critical because it determines what services and products can be complained about, even outside the old six-year rule. I am clear that the definition should not be limited by the inclusion of further qualifications, although the will of the House will decide on the final wording.
Section 5 lays out how the new rules will work. Instead of a blanket six-year ban on complaints, consumers will now be able to make a complaint within the six years or within three years of becoming aware of the breach. This model is used in Britain and Australia. For practical reasons, there will be a backstop of 2002 and a final cut off of six years since the product ended. The section is also very clear that the provision will be retrospective in nature. People in the past who turned away because of the six-year rule will be free to re-apply under the new rules.
Section 3 is a small amendment. It now means that the ombudsman will operate without undue technicality. This flows from the finding in FLAC's report that gives the ombudsman a clear legal mandate to operate informally. The courts could end up using this provision against the ombudsman.
Sections 4, 7 and 9 are consequent on each other. The substantive changes are as follows. While before the ombudsman was limited to three possible findings, he or she can now make four findings. Until now the ombudsman was limited to making a finding whereby a complaint was upheld, partly upheld or rejected. This narrow range of choices has meant that some consumers who had been, in effect, found against were still being told that their complaint had been partly upheld. This Bill allows for the four findings of upheld, substantially upheld, substantially rejected or rejected. The wider range allows for a more accurate result to be given to consumers.
Section 6 introduces a new method to encourage mediation as the primary tool of the ombudsman. I am glad to say that mediation has increasingly become the norm for the service. I wish to indicate that I am considering an amendment to this section to strengthen the focus on mediation further.
Section 8 increases the window in which consumers or, indeed, financial institutions can lodge an appeal with the High Court if they are not satisfied with a ruling of the ombudsman. Currently, there is only a 21-day window, but this Bill will increase that to 35 days. Ultimately, the court can make its own rules in this regard.
At this juncture I must point out that the original Bill contained changes in order that an appeal could be lodged with the Circuit Court. These sections were deleted on Committee Stage in the Dáil. The conversation on access to justice is one we must keep bringing up and keep our eyes on.
I hope that all sides support this Bill. Let us recall that the title of the 2014 FLAC report is Redressing the Imbalance. If we pass this Bill, we will have achieved a real levelling of the playing field for consumers.
I hope that it can be passed tonight and that we will be back as soon as possible to finalise it so that it can be enacted. I seek assurances from the Minister of State that the Government is genuine in its approach to this Bill and in its response to the urgent need to protect our citizens.
I welcome Deputy Pearse Doherty, who has sponsored the Bill, to the Chamber. Tá fáilte romhat.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, to the Chamber. I endorse the comments of my colleague, Senator Conway-Walsh, and welcome the Bill. I thank and acknowledge the brilliant Deputy Pearse Doherty for drafting this Bill and ensuring its progress to this stage.
Like many in the House, I have been contacted by a large number of people who wanted to share their stories and say how important it was that the legislation should not only pass into law, but do so as quickly as possible. I will share the story of Mary, a constituent of mine who updated me on the current payment protection insurance, PPI, situation. She only recently noticed that she was paying a large annual sum for her PPI policy, which ran from 2004 to 2017. It increased from €870 to €1,344 years later, a significant sum of approximately €17,000 in total during a time of austerity, cuts and attacks on working people and the poor. This €17,000 was badly needed in that household.
Mary and her husband believe that they were mis-sold the policy. Her husband is self-employed. Believing that it was compulsory insurance, they signed for it at the same time that they took out their mortgage. The Financial Services Ombudsman has been in touch with them since 2004 regarding the mis-selling of the PPI by the banks, but it looks like the office will not be able to act because of the six-year Statute of Limitations. Mary was aware that I would be addressing this Bill in the Seanad on 14 June, which was actually a while ago, and wanted me to consider passing it urgently so that the situation could be resolved for her and the many more people in the same situation.
We have had it up to our teeth with what the banks have done to this country and ordinary people. We have bailed them out and are still bailing them out. Our children's children will be bailing them out. Let us have equal rights for the citizens who own this country, not for the banks or speculators. I hope that the Minister of State will do right by the people affected by this issue. It is a small amount in some instances, but €17,000 is a large figure. It is like savings for people who do not have the means to fight the banks. The banks need to give back the moneys owed to those people from whom it was wrongfully taken in the first place.
This issue has been under discussion for some time, so the Minister of State is probably aware that the deadline in the UK has been pushed to 2019 because there are many cases that are still to be addressed because they fell outside the limitation ruling. Please, pass this Bill urgently. Mary is not alone. The moneys owed would make a major difference to people who are struggling to pay mortgages, struggling with negative equity and struggling to rear young families. We owe it to people like Mary to ensure that this Bill, which offers a way out of hardship to many, is passed. I urge all Senators to support it and I commend my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty. Well done. Let us have a resolution to the greed of the banks and their mistakes.
I welcome my colleague, Deputy D'Arcy, to the House and commend him on his appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for financial services and insurance. Yesterday was a proud day for him and his family and I wish him well. We will not be too hard on him today.
Speak for yourself.
The spirit of bipartisanship.
I was in the Seanad for long enough.
I acknowledge the presence of Deputy Pearse Doherty, who introduced this Bill. The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Bill 2017 is complementary.
From reading the legislation, the key issue is the definition of what constitutes a long-term financial services product. I will speak from practical experience. Many ordinary people have approached Members about difficulties with various financial products that they bought. Recently, an elderly man - he was a good age - told me of how he had bought a life assurance product. He had assumed that it was an endowment product, in that it would effectively have an investment element, only to be told at the bright, young age of 93 that it was a term policy. By that stage, he had invested a significant amount of money in that section 60 policy. He went to the Financial Services Ombudsman.
Apart from what is being proposed in this legislation, we need to consider the issue of resourcing. We are regularly in contact with staff from the Financial Services Ombudsman. There is a resourcing issue and there are delays, but the staff are excellent.
Coupled with resourcing, an education and information campaign is also required so that the ordinary person can know precisely what he or she can get by approaching the Financial Services Ombudsman. In some cases where people are told to make submissions to the Financial Services Ombudsman, the level of evidence that they present is inadequate and, consequently, the decision that they receive is incomplete. We should examine this matter.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to the retrospective nature of the legislation. It is something that I suspect has been examined by the Attorney General's office so as to ensure that it will work. We have often seen cases of a retrospective element not working. It is an important matter.
What I take from the Bill is the need to ensure that, where there are genuine cases of people effectively being misled on financial services products and becoming aware of that within three years, they are shown fair play. Under the current legislation, a six-year rule applies. The question is whether that statute is being - I will not use the word "abused" - worked by certain financial services providers. We want legislation to act in substance as it was intended to act. Under the current six-year rule, though, that does not happen in many cases. The amendments provided in this legislation will go a long way towards remedying that.
Coupled with that, we must ensure that, when people make submissions to the Financial Services Ombudsman, they understand what information they need to provide and how the process works so that the examination by the officer who has the case - the Financial Services Ombudsman is going to be combined with the Pensions Ombudsman - will be efficient. Many cases drag on for an inordinate amount of time because the officers involved are trying to compile all of the information. Information on this fantastic service is needed.
I will address the issue under discussion. I note from the most recent debate in the Dáil that discussions were going to take place between Deputy Pearse Doherty and the Department about examining long term versus short term and so forth.
The most important thing to get right is that the legislation works for the purpose it was intended, and that one does not create something of a by-product whereby there is an unintended consequence which would effectively lead to an increase in premium rates on annual renewed products like insurance. Flood insurance is something I feel very strongly about. In Limerick we have had major floods over a long period in my local area of Castleconnell and around the city in Corbally. Many people in those areas can no longer get insurance. They had flood insurance and their product was renewed on an annual basis and when they signed the renewal they were not aware that flood insurance had been removed. We should consider what we wish the legislation to do and identify the unintended consequences we want to avoid and marry those and effectively in order that we have a body of legislation whereby people coming into our offices, who are invariably people who are financially stretched, who bought products for insurance purposes, will be entitled to have their cases heard regardless of the length of time. I commend the Bill to the House. We will be supporting it. I look forward to the Minister of State's comments on same.
It feels almost like we are at a finance committee meeting between Senator O'Donnell, Senator Conway-Walsh, Deputy Pearse Doherty and a former member of the committee and newly appointed Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy D'Arcy. I congratulate him. We will see him at a different side of the table at future committee meetings. I wish him the best of luck in his new role.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland (Amendment) Bill 2014, which Fianna Fáil will be supporting. However, we would not have supported the move to accelerate the passage of this Bill through the Seanad in one day, as to do so would have made a mockery of Seanad procedure and set a very poor precedent. Sinn Féin wished to push the Bill through the Seanad quickly in one day, but to be fair to Senator Conway-Walsh, she did take on board the concerns of Fianna Fáil and others and decided that only Second Stage would be taken today. We will support Second Stage and as a party Fianna Fáil has supported the thrust of the Bill and what it is trying to do. We know it is a genuine move by Deputy Pearse Doherty and his party in the Dáil and Senator Conway-Walsh and her Seanad colleagues. A lot of the time we work together fairly well on the finance committee.
The Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Bill 2017 is a Government Bill on the same issue, and it seems to be a case of one party wanting to claim a little bit of political credit over the other. That is understandable. Committee Stage of that Bill will be taken in the Dáil soon and it covers many of the provisions set out in this Bill.
On the back of the financial crisis and the consumer problems that followed, the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, issued a report on the financial protections for consumers of credit and other financial services in Ireland. Fianna Fáil published a similar Bill before the FLAC report that sought to strengthen consumer protection in the financial services sector. In an open market economy such as Ireland's, a healthy financial services sector and the provision of credit to consumers is essential. Deputy Pearse Doherty’s Bill seeks to provide for the strengthening of the functions of the Financial Services Ombudsman, the consumer complaints procedure and related matters. Overall, we support the intention behind the Bill, as it extends the time limits for long-term financial services similar to section 51 of the Government's Bill.
In 2005, the Financial Services Ombudsman expanded the definition of "consumer". Companies with an annual turnover of less than €3 million and partnerships, clubs, charities and trusts were deemed consumers and could avail of the Financial Services Ombudsman, FSO, process. However, there were concerns with that arrangement. It was believed that the definition was too broad and used up valuable FSO time and resources and, second, that the Financial Services Ombudsman Council may have exceeded its power. The original Bill sought to address those concerns with the use of the term "commercial consumer" and that will be incorporated as part of the Government's Bill.
The Free Legal Advice Centres reported that there has been a lack of evaluation of the various components of the financial service complaints process in terms of effectiveness for consumers. They found a level of complacency in the process. With regard to the fact that many complaints involve alleged breaches of statutory rules, FLAC advised that the term "in an informal manner" should be amended to reflect that.
Currently, as has been indicated, the Act limits the time for a complaint to be made to six years prior so, in other words, any complaint that arrives into the office can only reflect something bad that happened within the previous six years. Senators Kieran O'Donnell and Devine outlined examples of where people bought a product thinking it was one thing but ten or 12 years later they discovered it was not what they thought it was. They want to make a complaint but because the original transaction was older than six years they were limited, as cases outside the timeframe cannot be investigated under the current process. Senator O'Donnell said he would use the term "abused" but it was not a case of the banks abusing the process but pointing to the clause in the law saying they do not have to do such and such. Let us ensure we change the law so that in future that get-out-of–jail clause, or whatever phrase one wishes to use, is no longer there. Let us make sure that people who have genuine complaints can have their complaint investigated and find out whether there is merit in their complaint. I am sure in many cases there will be and in other cases the complaint will not be valid.
The Bill seeks to loosen the situation by inserting another limit which would give consumers a three-year limit from the time they become aware or ought to have become aware of the consequences of the conduct - whichever of the two limits occurs later will be used. That will also be incorporated by the Government's Bill.
When the regulated financial service provider against whom the complaint has been made refuses to engage with the voluntary mediation process, this amendment would compel the provider to provide the FSO with convincing reasons for refusing to engage in mediation.
The Bill seeks to reflect more accurately the nature of the finding by expanding the finding categories. Current categories are: is substantiated; is not substantiated; and is partially substantiated in one or more specified respects but not in others. The new categories are: upheld; substantially upheld; substantially rejected; and rejected.
I welcome this discussion and I hope we can reach agreement on the key issues involved in the Bill over which I am led to believe there is wide agreement. The Government has said for quite some time that it will review the six-year rule, and I hope that it can be done. I welcome the new Minister of State. I have no doubt he will bring a new energy and impetus to his role. He knows from his time on the finance committee, the banking inquiry and other fora the issues that are involved. I commend the Bill to the House. We are supporting it on Second Stage. Let us hope we can all work together for the benefit of all those people who are affected by the current rules.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Michael D'Arcy, and congratulate him on his appointment. I will not go into great detail because Senator Conway-Walsh has eloquently set out the purpose of the Bill and I fully support it. It is important to say that the Bill was unanimously agreed in Dáil Éireann. I acknowledge the work Deputy Pearse Doherty put into the Bill. There is a new political maturity. From my experience in the Chamber in the past year if Sinn Féin does something there seems to be some resistance to it across the board and some reason to oppose it. I might have differences with Sinn Féin from time to time but-----
Senator Boyhan is sitting close to them as if he was one of them.
I am very happy to sit among them. They have an exceptional record in local government where I worked with them for many years and across the country, as I would with any other group. The bottom line is that we should talk about policy more than personalities. It is not about playing politics. Everyone in here has a mandate. We are elected by the people. Members of Sinn Féin are here. That makes a change from a lot of other people, who do not tend to be here when they propose legislation. That is for another day.
I acknowledge the work Deputy Pearse Doherty has done on the Bill. We are talking about a relationship between financial institutions and the consumer. The consumer has got a bad deal. There are not too many politicians here from other parties. Enough politicians have belly-ached in the other House about the raw deal for the consumer but many of them have done sweet damn all about it. It is important that this is good legislation. As for going on to the next Stage and tweaking the Bill, sometimes it is important that we accept Bills and the good faith of the people who put in the effort and presented a solid proposal to us.
Let us ask what the Bill will do in simple terms for the people we represent. I understand the Bill empowers the Financial Services Ombudsman to investigate complaints. That is positive. That is good. We have no reason to oppose that. Second, it places greater pressure on financial service providers to engage in the mediation process, because the record shows people have not been prepared to enter into mediation. We know that from our neighbours, families and friends who have found themselves in financial difficulties with the banks and there has not been willingness to engage. They may now be willing to engage with us because things have moved on a bit.
The reality is that people are facing the inevitable. That has to be good. It allows for a greater range of findings on completion of an investigation. That has to be positive. It gives consumers more power. People should have a legitimate expectation when they go into a process that they can get something out of it and that is good. The Bill will also allow for an appeal to be taken to the Circuit Court rather than the High Court. I will not give a lecture to people on a Bill that they have prepared and which they know better than I do. It will have my full support.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and join with other Senators in congratulating him on his appointment to his new position. I wish him all the best. I welcome my comrade and colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, to the House.
I also welcome this Bill as the beginning of a change in the relationship between consumers and financial institutions. We must not forget that consumers are involved in this issue. As Senator Boyhan has alluded to, the Oireachtas is nothing without the people. Politics should always face outwards. Consumers are involved in this issue. In every other sector, the rights of consumers are defended. There is no reason banks and financial institutions, many of which were bailed out by hard-working taxpayers, should not face the same rigorous procedures.
The six-year rule and the change to it contained in this Bill are important because it is an urgent issue for many families, especially with the tracker mortgage scandal and the recently-revealed possibility of another wave of payment protection insurance schemes being mis-sold. This Bill will allow many people affected by such issues to have their cases heard by the Financial Services Ombudsman. Sinn Féin and I know of many families waiting for this legislation to be passed in order for them to be able to make a complaint about a bank or insurance provider, have their case heard by the ombudsman, seek redress and be compensated. Sinn Féin has been contacted by many people who have asked and pleaded that the Bill progress quickly. It must be remembered that, especially for mortgage customers, every month that passes without their case being heard is another mortgage payment, more bills and, sadly, for many, a further drift into financial hardship. This is the first Opposition Bill to be passed through all Stages in the Dáil for a significant period of time. The Bill will have an immediate impact for the 3,000 people who have been prevented from having their cases heard and the many more people who simply have not made complaints as a result of the six-year rule. I welcome the support expressed by Senator Kieran O'Donnell, that of the Government, Fine Gael and also Fianna Fáil.
Tá mé ag iarraidh cur leis an méid ata ráite ag mo chomhghleacaithe ó Shinn Féin. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. He was a great colleague when he was a Member of the Seanad, during which time he was not backwards at coming forwards when it came to having a go at the banks. He always said it as he saw it and I understand why he would be supportive of this Bill.
I congratulate my comrade, Deputy Pearse Doherty, and his team who have brought forward this Bill. It is a very practical Bill containing a very practical and necessary measure. There is a time element to this issue and I hope there will not be any procrastination in the Bill being brought forward because the relationship between banks and their customers is a David and Goliath situation. The banks have so much power at their behest, including financial power, legal power and so on, that consumers can feel very helpless when it comes to tackling them on any issues relating to mortgages or other financial concerns.
I was formerly a member of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, which met with the Financial Services Ombudsman in connection with this issue. He was frustrated by the Statute of Limitations limiting the cases into which he could look. That will be addressed by this Bill. The support from that angle is very important.
I welcome the support from all parties across the board and I hope that we will be able to quickly progress the Bill. I look forward to the support of the Minister of State in that regard. Guím gach rath ar an Aire Stáit ina chuid oibre. Beimid ag sáraíocht lena chéile go rialta as seo amach, le cunamh Dé.
I thank all Senators for their good wishes. Senator Ó Clochartaigh is the only Member present with whom I served in the former Seanad. I got on very well with him and really enjoyed my time in this House.
The Government accepts the bona fides of the Bill. Our objective is to ensure that we put an appropriate Bill in place and the reason we do not want it going through all Stages is that we think it may be improved. If we can improve it, we will, because, in all likelihood, this could end up in court and the Judiciary, which are separate from the Legislature, could determine something other than what the Oireachtas determines. That can happen. We do not want it to happen. I want to ensure that we have the best possible legislation by the time we are finished.
I welcome Deputy Pearse Doherty to the Seanad. I worked well with him on the banking inquiry for two years along with my colleague, Senator Kieran O'Donnell. We are not shy in trying to put legislation in place to ensure that consumers are protected. Deputy Doherty's Bill proposes to extend the time limits within which consumers can complain to the Financial Services Ombudsman about the conduct of financial service providers and to improve the consumer complaints procedure more generally. It is commendable that Deputy Doherty is motivated to improve the consumer protection framework in Ireland and there has been a productive debate on the provisions of this Bill as passed by Dáil Éireann.
As Members are aware, the Government also has a Bill dealing with issues in this area, namely the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Bill 2017 which has also been progressing through the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government's Bill is more comprehensive as it deals with the amalgamation of the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Pensions Ombudsman, strengthens the procedures for consumer complaints in regard to these products and updates and modernises the two pieces of original legislation underpinning the two bodies. I support the intention behind the Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill as its principles and ethos are mostly aligned with the Government Bill. There have been several debates on this issue and I am glad to hear that many of the Minister's recommendations have been taken on board. In particular, the Government supports this Private Members' Bill insofar as it extends the time limit for complaints in regard to long-term financial services, similar to the extension set out in section 51 of the Government Bill.
Section 3 of Deputy Doherty's Bill amends subsection (4) of section 57BK of the Central Bank Act 1942, which now reads that, "The Financial Services Ombudsman [...] is required to act in an informal manner and according to equity, good conscience and the substantial merits of the complaint without undue regard to technicality or legal form". The Government is now satisfied with the drafting of this section as it was modified after our earlier discussions at pre-legislative scrutiny and is in line with section 12(11) of the Government's Bill.
Section 5 of the Bill deals with the amendment of section 57BX of the Central Bank Act through the extension of the time limits to complain to the Financial Services Ombudsman. Section 5 was amended in the Dáil and it reflects a similar provision in the Government's Bill which extends the time limits for complaints regarding certain long-term financial services to six years from the date of the conduct complained of or three years from the date the complainant knew or ought reasonably to have known about the conduct.
The new time limits for long-term financial services will apply to complaints made to the ombudsman about conduct that occurred during or after 2002 and the service in regard to which complaint is made must not have expired or been otherwise terminated more than six years before the date of the complaint. There has been a productive engagement between officials on both sides to seek to ensure that the sections on time limits in Deputy Doherty's Bill and the Government's Bill are aligned with each other and carefully drafted. I am satisfied with this aspect of the legislation and must thank the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for its help in this regard.
However, section 2 of the Bill inserts a definition of long-term financial service as being, "a financial service where the actual or intended duration of the service is 5 years and one month or more". This is one area where the Government currently disagrees with Deputy Doherty's drafting of the Bill. The concern that the Government has about this definition was raised by then Minister of State, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, in the Dáil on Report Stage of this Bill. The Government is concerned that this definition of long-term financial service could include a wide range of policies or services that are subject to annual renewal.
However, it is ultimately a matter for the courts to decide if annual policies are included in this definition.
For the avoidance of doubt, we have tried in our Bill to exclude explicitly annual policies from the definition of "long-term financial service". The cost of insurance is expensive as is well known and we have concerns that the Sinn Féin definition of "long-term financial service" could increase costs for insurance companies through extra record-keeping requirements and increased costs in insuring themselves against more claims and uncertainty about older policies. I am keen to avoid any potential misrepresentations and misunderstandings by copper-fastening a definition of "long-term financial service" which avoids passing to consumers the higher costs which may become embedded in the cost-bases of insurance companies into the future. For short-term financial services, consumers have six years to complain about conduct. This period should be sufficient for short-term financial services.
We will be proposing an amendment to the definition of "long-term financial service" in the Bill on Committee Stage. It is worth pointing out that, under the current regime, the EFSO will inform the Central Bank of any matter arising during an investigation which he feels is indicative of some pattern, for example, mis-selling, so that the appropriate regulatory action may be taken. The ability to make recommendations to the regulatory authorities will continue under section 18 of the new legislation. This is also intended to deal with cases which may fall outside the six-year rule as it would allow the Central Bank of Ireland to engage with providers in respect of wider issues. The recent Central Bank investigation and redress of €71 million provided to customers in respect of the mis-selling of payment protection insurance is a case in point.
Section 6 amends section 57CA of the Central Bank Act and reinforces the mediation procedures which should operate in the ombudsman's office. I am happy to note that Deputy Pearse Doherty has made changes to this section on mediation. The Private Member's Bill, as initiated, would have required a financial services provider to provide the ombudsman with convincing reasons for not going to mediation when choosing not to engage with the mediation process. I am glad Deputy Pearse Doherty has taken on board the Government's view that maintaining the voluntary ethos of mediation is important and that the focus should be on equipping the ombudsman with the power to promote engagement in the mediation process, which is now at the core of the Government's Bill and that of Sinn Fein.
Section 7, amending section 57CI of Part VIIB of the Central Bank Act, changes the categories of determinations that the ombudsman can make. In the interests of more transparency, Deputy Pearse Doherty’s Bill proposes to amend the categories of findings which may issue to a consumer following an investigation in relation to a complaint. The four new categories are: (a) is upheld; (b) is substantially upheld; (c) is substantially rejected, or (d) is rejected. Subsection (2) of this section details the reasons for which a complaint can be found to be upheld, substantially upheld or substantially rejected, whereas subsection (3) lists the recourse that the ombudsman is able to direct from the financial service provider. This is a reasonable update and modernisation of the original legislation which will bring more clarity to consumers. This will be a good outcome for the ombudsman’s process but also for consumers and will be in addition to the publication of decisions as provided for in my Bill. Sections 4 and 9 are consequential amendments to update and restate the existing legislation and update the categories of findings.
Section 4 amends section 57BS of Part VIIB of the Central Bank Act and repeats the existing name-and-shame provision. It also updates the section with the new categories of findings set out in section 7 of the Bill. If three complaints about a regulated financial services provider are made to the Financial Services Ombudsman in the preceding year and if the ombudsman finds these to be upheld or substantially upheld, such a provider will be named publicly by the ombudsman. This name-and-shame provision is a relatively recent change in respect of the arbitration of financial services complaints and has also been maintained in the Government's Bill.
Section 9 restates section 57CP of the original legislation. The latter gives the High Court the power to grant injunctions in some cases and restricts this power in other circumstances. The only change, as far as I am aware, is updating the references of determinations of the ombudsman, which are amended under section 7 of the Private Member's Bill. Therefore, I have no views on this section.
Section 8, amending section 57CL of Part VIIB of Principal Act, increases the time consumers have to appeal a decision of the ombudsman to the High Court from 21 days under the existing legislation to within 35 days of the date of notification of the decision of the Financial Services Ombudsman. This timeline is similar to that proposed by the Government on Report Stage in the Dáil and is a measure that should help consumers.
I turn to the interaction between the Government Bill and the Private Member's Bill. It is important to point out that if the Government Bill is enacted, it will repeal Part VIIB of the Central Bank Act 1942, which sets out the provisions in respect of the Financial Services Ombudsman. Deputy Pearse Doherty's Bill amends that part of the 1942 Act so the Government's Bill, when enacted, will repeal the provisions this Bill is proposing to amend. This will be in accordance with the recommendations of the relevant committee during pre-legislative scrutiny. Furthermore, following the productive engagement during the development of Sinn Fein’s legislation, the Government is willing to make amendments to its own Bill to take on board some of the new provisions that we agreed with during the passage of the Private Member's Bill. One such amendment, which we will make on Committee Stage, involves increasing the time to appeal a decision of the ombudsman to the High Court from 21 days to 35 days, as proposed in section 8 of Sinn Fein’s Private Member's Bill, as passed by the Dáil. In addition to this amendment, I will also look at the range of categories of decisions that the ombudsman can make after an investigation. The increased range of findings will be a good outcome for the ombudsman's process and for consumers and will be in addition to the publication of decisions as provided for in my Bill. As I said earlier, we will also return to the definition of "long-term financial service" on Committee Stage.
I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to deal with this complex Bill over a number of days. I have discussed the matter with staff in the Department of Finance and we are determined to get it right. I am sure the House will give us the latitude to provide the experience and knowledge to improve the Bill. That is why we objected to it going through all Stages this evening. I hope it will move quickly. I undertake to move it as quickly as possible. That said, we have got to get the definition relating to long-term products right. I hope the House will give us the opportunity to do that. We are facilitating the Bill on Second Stage and I look forward to any further comments.
I do not know if that was the Minister of State's first speech following his appointment. Certainly, it was his first speech in the Chamber. He stuck to his time brilliantly and was within 30 seconds of the limit, for which I thank him very much. Long may that continue. Senator Conway-Walsh will conclude the debate. She has five minutes.
I thank the Acting Chairman and the Minister of State. From hearing the latter's response, we have more in common than divides us. I accept his bona fides that he recognises the urgency relating to the Bill and I am glad he mentioned days rather than anything else. I accept that he may have very genuine amendments in terms of long-term services as defined in section 2. Perhaps he might let us have the amendments as soon as possible so that we can get agreement on them. He will know from the finance committee that insurers will use this as an excuse to raise premiums in any event.
However, that would be nothing more than an excuse. We can work in these protections using the insurance report. We should not allow the Bill to be delayed by the behaviour of insurers because other measures can be put in place.
I welcome and thank Deputy Pearse Doherty. I had forgotten he was once a Senator and, as such, can feel our pain sometimes.
He got out of here alive.
One of the greatest causes of pain for Senators is the lack of legislation. This Bill presents the Seanad with an ideal opportunity to push forward legislation which was carefully prepared by Deputy Doherty and Declan O'Farrell in his office. I also thank Séamus MacFloinn for his input and all the others who contributed to the Bill, including those to whom the Minister of State referred. If minor tweaks are needed, they can be made quickly and in a collaborative manner. I also thank Senator Boyhan and Senator Horkan who is also a member of the finance committee.
This is an extremely important Bill because it places consumers who need protection front and centre. It is our job, whether we come from Mayo, Cork, Limerick or elsewhere - we cannot forget the Dubs, at least not before September - to introduce instruments to protect people. This is our opportunity to pass legislation that will make a difference in the lives of those who have been wronged by financial institutions. Members of the joint committee and others know that thousands of bank customers were robbed by being forced off tracker mortgage rates to which they were legally entitled. This group of consumers is still waiting for justice, which is a crime in itself. These are not victimless crimes and those who have been robbed of their money continue to wait. This practice has cost some people their lives and others their relationships and family life. The Bill seeks to make a minor change for thousands of people and we should not take it lightly.
The Bill provides us with an opportunity to facilitate justice for thousands of people. It has been scrutinised and many people have made an input into it. I commend Deputy Doherty on showing the leadership and courage to stand up to the financial institutions and tell them that we, as legislators, are no longer prepared to let this happen on our watch. Let us finalise and enact the Bill. Time should never be a barrier to justice. Our only focus is on providing the legal instruments to protect the rights of people dealing with financial institutions.
The Bill will send a clear message to financial institutions that we are no longer willing to accept their behaviour and that where matters need to be put right, they will be put right collectively. Deputy Pearse Doherty showed leadership in drawing up this Bill, to which many others also made an input.
I thank Deputy D'Arcy for his attendance in the House for the first time as a Minister of State. I also thank Senators for their contributions to the debate.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.