Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I appreciate the Seanad Éireann facilitating the taking of two Bills relating to credit union activities this evening. The Credit Union Restructuring Board (Dissolution) Bill 2019 has already gone through the Dáil and it should complete its passage through the Oireachtas next week. This Bill is starting here and will have to go to the Dáil but we want to ensure it is completed before the end of this year, if possible.

This Bill was initially set out as the credit unions (miscellaneous provisions) Bill as the overwhelming majority of the Bill relates to credit unions. As there are two items of a financial nature included in the Bill, the title has been changed to the Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020.

The three core objectives of the Bill are to amend the Credit Union Act 1997 to allow for general meetings to proceed that are prohibited under current health regulations, to amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012 to allow for an increase from two to three in the number of terms that can be served by a member of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, and to amend the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender that will allow the State to comply with certain provisions contained in the SURE loan agreement.

The Credit Union Act 1997 requires credit unions to have their annual general meetings for the financial year to 30 September 2020 completed by the end of January 2021. Under current public health guidelines, general meetings, including such annual general meetings, cannot proceed in practice. The changes being proposed in the Bill will allow greater flexibility to manage general meetings on a permanent basis and it is important that these changes are permissive in nature. In other words, we are permitting credit unions to have their meetings virtually but we are not requiring them to do it. It is a matter for each credit union and the members of the credit union to set their own rules on the holding of such meetings virtually. They are not required to do it but there is currently a legal prohibition on them doing it. We are removing that in order to give credit unions who want to do it the facility to do so. Those credit unions that do not wish to hold virtual meetings are not obliged to do it. It is as simple as that.

Some of these amendments will be temporary and relate directly to changes required to enable general meetings to proceed during the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, the board of a credit union may decide on the form of a general meeting, similar to the provisions in the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Act 2020, notwithstanding the rules of the credit union. Should these changes not be made and the public health measures continue to restrict large physical gatherings, the Central Bank has the power, in limited circumstances, to direct a credit union to postpone the holding of an annual general meeting for a period not exceeding nine months where it is necessary to do so.

The Central Bank has an identical power to defer special general meetings of credit unions. Boards could also issue information in written form to members and-or publish financial updates on their websites. However, these outcomes would be suboptimal as members would not be able to express their right to vote and-or call the board to account.

The main amendments proposed in the legislation are: to allow the option of virtual general meetings which provide access for remote attendance and the option of electronic voting; to provide credit unions with the option of availing of proxy voting for a temporary interim period to allow for the directors to determine the form of the general meeting, notwithstanding the credit union rules; to allow for AGMs related to the year ending in September 2020 to be delayed to April 2021 as opposed to the normal January 2021; to allow for the interim period to be extended by order beyond April, if necessary, depending on Covid etc.; to allow the Minister for Finance to make further regulations relating to general meetings to be held by the use of electronic communications technology; and to allow the directors of a credit union, in exceptional circumstances, to cancel the holding of a general meeting at any time prior to the holding of the meeting.

While the Bill introduced today is similar in some respects to the Companies (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Covid-19) Act 2020, it takes into account the different nature of credit unions and makes some permanent changes. For example, the Bill provides for credit unions to hold partly or fully virtual meetings on a permanent basis, a feature we hope will encourage greater member engagement at general meetings in the future.

The Bill will amend the Schedule to the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012 to increase the maximum number of consecutive terms which a member of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council may serve from two to three terms, before becoming ineligible for reappointment. This amendment is proposed to address exceptional continuity challenges which the council is currently facing and to provide for greater flexibility for future appointments. Members of the council are required to possess a certain skill set and a highly technical level of expertise. With members currently restricted to serving just two consecutive terms of office, the pool of candidates available for every new open competitive process is a particularly narrow one and an ongoing challenge.

The five-member council is likely to have three vacancies by the end of the year. In addition, the two members who will remain in situ are relatively new appointees. The continuity challenges which face the council constitute exceptional circumstances and require the proposed change to the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012. Once passed, the change will help to address this considerable continuity challenge and allow for existing members to serve a third consecutive term.

The Bill will amend section 67 of the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender, which will allow the State to comply with certain provisions contained in the EU support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency, SURE, loan agreement. Section 67(7) of the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act sets out those institutions which are facility lenders to the State. While the definition of "facility lender" currently includes the European Financial Stability Facility and European Financial Stabilisation Mechanism, which are part of the European Union, these references would not cover the European Union as lender under the SURE regulation and loan agreement. The technical amendment to section 67(7) extends the definition of "facility lender" to include the European Union as lender to the Irish State.

As Senators will be aware, the Government has applied for a loan of €2.474 billion under the EU's SURE instrument. This loan will cover eligible expenditure on short-term work schemes, that is, the majority of the expenditure on the temporary wage subsidy scheme, which has already been spent to date. Essentially, we want to draw down a loan to cover the payments to date under that EU arrangement. At the moment there is no provision in Irish law to allow the State to draw down a loan directly from the European Union. While we can draw down from other European institutions, we cannot complete the agreement until we change our legislation to borrow directly from the European Union for the first time ever. It is a new initiative as part of the EU's response to Covid-19 across the Union.

I look forward to hearing the views of the Senators in the course of the debate on the Bill, which in summary, will allow credit unions to hold virtual AGMs associated with the financial year ending in September 2020, will allow each credit union to decide on the appropriate mechanism for voting at a general meeting, and will extend the time in which AGMs can be held from January 2021 to the end of April 2021. The Bill will also amend the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012 to allow for an increase in the number of consecutive terms that can be served by a member of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. It will also amend the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender, which will allow the State to comply with certain provisions contained in the SURE loan agreement.

I commend the Bill to the Seanad.

I welcome the Minister of State who is dealing with his second Bill this evening, the Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020, which like the previous Bill is somewhat technical in nature.

The Minister of State spoke about allowing for an additional term for members of the five-member Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, which makes perfect sense. Would he agree that five members is a low number and that there might be a need to increase that to seven or eight at a future date? It would make things somewhat easier in that regard because these things happen on boards from time to time and people are busy. I presume it is the same as an ordinary board that any Department might have. It is important to have both continuity and new blood, and increasing the membership would allow for that.

I understand that the SURE provision was enacted previously under Covid-19 regulations. The changes here are to ensure we can draw down loans directly from the European Union. We are lucky that as a member of the European Union that facility is available to us when needed at a favourable rate. I certainly welcome that.

The bulk of the Bill relates to the credit union movement. I will not repeat what has been said on that. The changes will allow them to carry out AGMs virtually and for votes to take place in those cases as well. It covers the period of the Covid-19 emergency. It is to be hoped that by September 2021, AGMs will be back to normal and can be held in person without masks and everything else. Who knows where we will be? That is certainly the wish and the aim. I welcome all the provisions the Minister of State mentioned there.

Lines 9 and 10 of Long Title of the Bill state, "for those and other purposes of amend the Credit Union Act 1997". It may make sense legally; it does not make sense to me. It might be missing a comma or perhaps the word "of" should not be there. I ask the Minister of State to check that out at some stage.

I again thank the Minister of State. We will be supporting the Bill which makes amendments to existing legislation, including urgently required changes relating to credit union general meetings to enable them to go ahead during the current pandemic. It also changes the terms of the membership of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council to strengthen continuity and widen eligibility. The Bill also makes changes to enable compliance with certain provisions contained in the SURE loan agreement which provides financial assistance to EU member states to address sudden increases in public expenditure caused by the Covid pandemic and to preserve employment.

The Bill is a priority in this term because the current legislative deadline for credit unions to hold their AGMs relating to the year ended in September 2020 is 30 January 2021. Therefore, it is important that this legislation is passed. Changes to the Fiscal Responsibility Act are also required by the end of 2020.

The credit unions will be able to hold AGMs virtually with the option of electronic voting. Maybe we should introduce similar provisions on how we operate our business in the Houses here. Maybe we could vote in a more efficient manner than we do at the moment.

Maybe somebody could draft legislation on how we pass our own Bills here.

The Bill is concerned with credit unions and there is unanimous support for the credit union movement in both Houses of the Oireachtas. The movement is hugely valued in every community in the country. It is interesting to note that the two most trusted brands in Ireland are credit unions and An Post, both of which are very much community based. The community is at the heart of both organisations. The Minister of State and others have spoken about the future of credit unions and how to expand their role in the community. Credit unions have the potential to fill a void in communities. As we know, even our major towns are struggling to maintain a main street banking presence. Credit unions might be able to fill the gap left by the decline in main street banking. Banks are walking away from their customers and are not serving the needs of the local communities and local businesses and there may be an opportunity for credit unions to strengthen their role in that regard. I also agree with the Minister of State that it is time credit unions had a more active role in the mortgage market. I welcome both of these Bills and would like to put on the record of the House my faith and trust in the credit union movement in Ireland. I applaud what it has done for our people.

This is a very important Bill. I welcome, in particular, the amendment to the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act, which is both necessary and timely and the Labour Party will be supporting it. I also welcome the amendment to the Credit Union Act. It is important to put the ability of credit unions to hold their AGM online on a permanent footing and I would encourage all of them to do so because it is means of encouraging more of their members to be active in their credit unions. It is a reminder that credit unions are very democratic organisations. There is no such thing as customers in credit unions, only members and in that context, the facilitation of an AGM online is very important and will hopefully encourage more members to become involved.

I want to record my deep unease with the proposal to extend the number of consecutive terms for members of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC. A period of 12 years seems like an excessive length of time to serve on any board or council but particularly on the IFAC. It jars with the notion of a healthy turnover of participants on the board and potentially conflicts with the principle of trying to ensure a fresh flow of ideas onto a board or a council. From what I understand about the equivalent advisory councils in most other EU member states, Ireland will stand apart in allowing three consecutive terms. The UK's advisory council, for example, has a five-year term that is renewable just once, in Sweden, it is a three-year term that is not renewable at all, in France it is a five-year term that is renewable once, or not at all because there is a gender balance requirement, and in Finland it is a four-year term that is not renewable. These are just four examples but when one looks at the remainder of the EU member states it appears that terms are renewable up to two terms only. It is a concern if Ireland were to stand apart from other member states in terms of its practice with regard to appointing members to the IFAC.

I want to make it clear that I am not having a cut off the Minister of State here because there is a wider issue with regard to the Department of Finance. The question must be asked as to why the Department is bringing this proposal forward now. I understand that the existing council is facing into a situation where it will be reduced to just three members at the end of the year.

Why has the vacancy on the council been left open for almost 11 months? The vacancy was advertised on 6 November but I am not sure if that was the first advertisement this year. There is a wider question as to the Government's approach to the IFAC. The then Government was very enthusiastic about the IFAC when it was established in 2012 but one must question the Government's current attitude towards the council. The council has an important function in advising the Government on fiscal policy but it also has a broader role in terms of providing analysis, dissemination of information and an understanding of Ireland's fiscal stance, our compliance with budgetary rules and our performance. While I would not agree with all of the council's recommendations, its establishment in 2012 was a very welcome and hugely important development. Any of us who were observing fiscal policy closely in this country will attest to the disjointed and very poor availability of data on fiscal policy making and on understanding the fiscal stance of this country. The IFAC has advanced and progressed our understanding of Ireland's fiscal and budgetary stance but one must question the Government's attitude towards the council and the level of encouragement and support provided to it. If the Government believes there is an issue with regard to the council's statutory functions, it should bring forward recommendations on same. When I read that the council is currently facing "exceptional continuity challenges", I ask myself whose fault that is and I believe it is the Government's fault because it has not been proactive in ensuring it is attracting candidates to the council. There are many macroeconomists here in Ireland and many macroeconomists from Ireland who are working abroad who I believe would be interested in serving but they must be attracted in; they have to be asked. There is another way, rather than extending membership of the council to three terms. I wish to be very clear that I am not in any way casting any aspersions on or discrediting those who are currently serving. I know that those who have been serving have done so diligently and have given much of their time but I do not think a 12-year term is good practice for a Government-appointed council. Another way of ensuring a healthy and consistent flow of qualified persons onto the council must be found.

Sinn Féin supports this Bill. The financial year end for credit unions is the end of September, with annual general meetings, AGMs, subsequently occurring between October and January, as required under the Credit Union Act 1997. As a result of the current public health measures, it would not be possible to proceed with physical AGMs and special general meetings. In addition, the uncertain direction of public health measures into the future makes planning for such meetings difficult due to the time lag between notice of a meeting being sent to members and the actual meeting itself.

The purpose of this legislation is to allow credit unions to hold certain meetings remotely which are required under the Credit Union Act. Our support for this legislation is wholly contingent on the support of the credit union movement itself. I note the Credit Union Development Association, CUDA and the Irish League of Credit Unions, ILCU, have engaged with the Department of Finance and the Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach on the general scheme of this legislation. Both organisations welcome the provisions of this legislation overall, as does Sinn Féin. These are extraordinary times and the Bill seeks to introduce flexibility as credit unions fulfil their obligations under the 1997 Act.

I join the credit union movement in welcoming section 78A(8), which provides that a temporary failure or disruption in communications will not invalidate the general meeting or any proceedings relating to it. Questions have been asked about the practical problems that may result from notice requirements for cancelled or rescheduled general meetings.

Section 78A(10) permits the board of directors to cancel, relocate or change the means of holding a general meeting in order to comply with public health guidelines, provided this is done in accordance with section 80 of the 1997 Act. It is my understanding that section 80 requires such notice to be given by post, something that may not be practical at such short notice. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify this issue.

Similarly, I am aware that the Irish League of Credit Unions has asked for clarification as to the exact meaning of the phrase "end of the day" provided in line 2 of page 7 of the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could provide that clarity today also.

Section 10 seeks to amend section 82(3) of the Act to allow for proxy voting in the general meeting. In 2016 the credit union advisory committee published its review of the implementation of the recommendations in the report by the Commission on Credit Unions. In it they noted that proxy voting was a specific concern from stakeholders. Stakeholders have stated their concern that proxy voting would be introduced in the permanent legislation and I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would address these concerns.

Finally, I wish to voice my support for the overall aim of the legislation and I look forward to scrutinising it further on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Minister of State to speak on the Finance (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020. I will ask about three points: the virtual meetings of credit unions; the fiscal council longer term; and credit unions accessing the European Union SURE scheme as a facility lender. The board of directors of every credit union is drawn from the members. As we have talked about it, a credit union is a community organisation. A credit union is run by the community for the community and for the benefit of the community. It is a non-profit. One is looking at bringing in volunteers. Every board of directors does this freely in their own time. They commit their time and expertise. They have the knowledge to lead and manage their credit union. We all have to be very grateful because they are putting in the good governance measures that we see the success of credit unions has been based on.

Following on from Senator Sherlock's points, I would ask a question of the Minister of State, to which I do not have the answer. It is about building up the importance of the credit union and making it attractive in the community so that people participate in, become members of and get loans from it, hopefully, for a post-Covid summer holiday which people would be able to look forward to. There is a body of work here where the State could support credit unions in the communication of that role with public relations, encouraging people to join boards of directors, or some other incentive measures. This applies to boards of directors in credit unions at a local level and to the question before us now with regard to the fiscal advisory council where there seems to be a difficulty because the terms are to be extended. I am happy to see that a 50% gender balance is provided for on the fiscal council at the moment, although it is a small group. It is something the 30% club are always fighting for.

On the issue of virtual meetings, we have to be more flexible. For mothers and fathers with young families, for example, it is very difficult for them to participate in voluntary activity in the evenings. Any type of virtual meeting would only encourage and support people to get more involved with their credit unions.

On the SURE scheme, which is the European Union temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency, Ireland is applying for financial support of more than €2.5 billion. Again, it is very important that all lenders are able to access this, as the Minister of State mentioned, and they would be considered a lender for the credit union. We are looking at huge rates of unemployment. Some 500,000 people are on some type of unemployment benefit and some 300,000 people are on the temporary wage subsidy scheme. It is crucial that we are able to access those funds, and that our lenders are able to access the funds directly from the European Union. I am very supportive of that, but there are questions around how we support and incentivise people to get involved in boards of directors and how we get people to build their expertise with credit unions in Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State for being here to take this very important legislation. It is a pity that the backdrop to this debate on the proposed reform of the credit union movement is Covid-19.

The explanatory memorandum to the Bill speaks about the provision for the holding of certain meetings of the credit unions by remote meeting. I pose my question in terms of the audit committee, the board of supervisors who have to go in and oversee the work of the credit union board and to look at the presentation of loans in the year and how that operates. Have we got a guideline and a roadmap for the board of supervisors?

As Senators Gavan and Dolan said, this legislation speaks about the importance of the annual general meeting. Those of us who are involved in the credit union movement know the importance of the annual general meeting. We also know the importance of communication. Section 8(1) provides for notification to be given in the same manner as the previous meetings unless "in the opinion of the board of directors, giving such notice in that manner is not reasonably practicable". Has any consideration been given in this new modern world of technology to WhatsApp notification or to email as a means of communicating? I appreciate that not every member of the credit union movement has an email address. That is not meant to be a judgmental comment, it is a matter of fact. Has any consideration been given to that?

On the holding of meetings of boards of directors, I will put it in the context of the Houses of the Oireachtas with regard to the legal standing of the board. Parliamentary privilege is not given to Members who attend meetings virtually from outside Leinster House. What is the legal requirement for the credit union members of boards of directors and the board of supervisors, and what is their legal position? As Senator Dolan rightly said, these boards are run voluntarily. These are professional people who bring expertise. There are also people from all walks of life.

I spoke in the previous debate about the Credit Unions 2020 Vision and the legislative framework for credit unions. In its pre-election request to us as politicians the credit union movement spoke about a review of the Credit Union and Co-operation with Overseas Regulators Act 2012, which it was looking to be changed. In the overarching reform of the credit union movement what is the thinking of Government now around the credit union movement and its role in the community, as referenced by many speakers in this and the previous debate?

There is a need to reassure and walk with the credit union movement in its delivery of what it offers to people based on the co-operative movement of old. There is an opportunity now, in a new world, to be able to deliver reform that is meaningful but is not, as the Credit Unions 2020 Vision document states, in effect "a platitude" but is real and tangible. For the future we want to see a sustainable model of the credit union movement. This Bill refers to changes and I would worry that over time the ethos of the credit union movement would be changed and altered. I welcome the provision here in that regard. It is important that there is real engagement.

I am concerned that with proxy voting we will end up becoming like the banks at their annual general meetings and the lending institutions where one can have people voted or blocked by a particular entity or grouping. I have not got the technical term for it but I would worry that this may lend itself to becoming part of it. I hope that will not happen. As we all know, the credit union AGM is an important opportunity to reaffirm and refresh and it has stood the test of time. I welcome the Bill and I welcome the changes in it.

On this important legislation I agree with Senator Buttimer that it is somewhat regrettable that we are dealing with many things in the context of Covid-19, but that is life.

With regard to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, I tend to share some of the concerns expressed by Senator Sherlock in terms of the moving over and the fixed terms. However, some of the people on the council now would have helped chart us out of the previous difficulties and perhaps they are rightly placed. In many ways, we are dealing with a unique set of circumstances so I can see the logic in what is being done here, but I believe that if we are taking a long-term view, two terms is enough. I am on a couple of boards of directors of NGOs and the time limit certainly would not be 12 years, for a very good reason. We must look at best international practice when it comes to the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. Senator Kyne made the very valid point that we must consider beefing it up, perhaps with eight to ten members. The money spent on it is exceptionally well spent. The advice it has given to the Government has been very much on the money.

I am aware of the Minister of State's previous role as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts and I watched him on the television screen on many occasions as he interrogated on behalf of that committee. He would understand and appreciate the importance of a changeover, beefing it up and bringing in more expertise. In our current situation, there is a global challenge to getting our economy back on track. That is only compounded by Brexit. The Fiscal Advisory Council is a key component in that regard.

Regarding the credit union in terms of accessing European money, that is evolving in the right direction and I strongly support it. As regards what has been said about AGMs and the need to hold them virtually, I consider that a housekeeping matter. On the overall point about credit union AGMs, and I have attended many of them, they are social events to some extent but also important community and oversight events. Some AGMs even have music events afterwards. The credit union AGMs are unique and many people would bemoan the fact that they must be held virtually, although the credit unions have the option of not holding them virtually.

In my previous contribution, I did not mention the role I envisage for credit unions in providing mortgages. That is another evolution of the credit union. Where banks and financial institutions are overprescriptive, there is a role for the credit union to take a more community ethos approach, to look at the benefit of a couple with three children supporting the local school, environment, community, GAA and so forth, and perhaps to push the boundaries out. It is a fact that people on low incomes who get mortgages meet their obligations, by and large. The people who go into arrears are usually people with a different socioeconomic profile. When people from a difficult financial background have a financial institution that works with them and helps them through a difficult patch, they usually discharge their loans. That has been proven time and again. That is evidence based internationally, but particularly in Ireland. People who get the opportunity to have their own home are extremely proud of that. We can point to the culture of home ownership in this country as being what drives people to meet their obligations in terms of their mortgages.

This Bill has been initiated in the Seanad and, no doubt, the Dáil will try to tear it apart, after which it will return to this House and we will tidy it up again. The work we are doing here is very important. There is a case for having further debates on joining the credit union with An Post, or at least creating memorandums of understanding, if that is possible, between the credit union and An Post.

That is the direction An Post needs to take, not with AIB, Bank of Ireland or any of the big banks but with the credit unions to try to create a community banking culture in this country.

I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. I have some brief questions for him. First, I welcome the legislation. With regard to the European Union facility included in the Bill, is this specifically for the credit unions or does it apply to many other institutions? Does it apply to all institutions that are lending? Do the main banks here already have that facility and is the Minister of State extending it to other institutions such as the credit union?

Second, with regard to holding meetings, whether it is through Zoom, Webex or whatever platform is used, has any thought gone into whether people could be eavesdropping, for want of a better word? A member could be online and there could be somebody else who may have a vested interest and who could have set up a scenario to get information to which he or she is not entitled. Most annual general meetings are only for members or for a certain number of people who are entitled to attend. In a case where meetings are held through a platform between various parts of a county or town, is there any provision in case anything untoward may happen? There is always something that can happen, such as the leaking of information. For example, there might be bad debts being discussed. Some people might have bad debts and their names may come up at an annual general meeting or the like. Would there be cover for the committee members? The chairman of the meeting, in particular, could be left exposed to anything happening in that regard.

Aside from that, I welcome the legislation and wish the Minister of State well.

I thank the Senators for their contributions on, and support for, this legislative measure which will formally amend the Credit Union Act 1997 to allow for general meetings, which are prohibited under the current health restrictions, to proceed. Some of the amendments will be permanent and will continue to operate after the interim period early next year. The Bill also amends the Fiscal Responsibility Act 2012 to allow for an increase in the number of consecutive terms which members of the Fiscal Advisory Council can serve. Furthermore, it amends the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender, which will allow the State to comply with certain provisions of the SURE loan agreement. That agreement has been mentioned. It is an agreement in respect of support to mitigate unemployment risks in an emergency. It is specifically related to Covid.

The Government recognises the significant role of credit unions as a voluntary, co-operative movement, and how important it is for members to receive up-to-date financial information on the credit union as well as being able to have their say on a key range of issues, typically at an AGM. We hope the permanent changes being made will allow for greater participation at general meetings by the members of a credit union.

On some of the points made by Members, I accept the point that perhaps five members on the fiscal council was tight. We have a particular problem as there will only be two in situ in the term of their office at the end of this year. We have to deal with what is before us. I agree, and it is a matter for future consideration, that if there were more members of the council, we might not find ourselves in this predicament of having only two, which might not even amount to a quorum at the end of this year. I accept the point and it would have been my instinct when I saw the legislation, but we must deal with what is in front of us.

On the issue of whether the legislation deals with voting at AGMs, like in a company, people can arrive with proxy votes representing a large amount of shares. The fundamental difference between credit unions and companies is that companies can buy shares. If somebody has 10% of the shares, he or she has proxy for 10%.

This is a mutual association so every single person has one vote. Nobody can arrive with 10% or 3% of the votes. They can arrive only with one proxy vote. That is very important because there is a fundamental difference here. While we use the proxy vote and the procedures are like those in the Companies Act, it is fundamentally different because it is not a shared vote. It is a personal vote.

Senator Gavan asked about the changing of meetings and what was meant by the phrase "the end of the day". That means that if the board of directors deems it necessary to cancel a meeting, it can only do so up to the end of the day prior to the meeting, meaning midnight the night before. It cannot cancel a meeting on the day of the meeting but can do it up to the end of the previous day. That is what that particular item means.

We must understand that directors are volunteers and there is no liability attached to them if people say something untoward at a meeting or virtually and they are eavesdropped on. That can happen in the course of any event or at any meeting anyway and one cannot blame the chairman for it. If somebody says something wrong that person is responsible for his or her own actions. It is not the responsibility of everybody else in the room.

The gender balance of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council was mentioned. That is important and essential and I hope whoever comes on as new members in due course will meet those criteria.

I do not think the legal position of the audit committee or supervisory board will be affected by this. They can still have their meetings but this legislation takes steps to prevent an AGM which involves large gatherings. Audit committees and so on are normally small meetings with small groups of people that can happen with proper social distancing when the time allows. This legislation should not impact on those meetings.

The review of the role of credit unions was mentioned. We are in favour of that and we just want them to lend more. They have a lot of excess cash, as all the banks do at the moment. There is a lot of money out there that institutions should be willing to loan in the new year once people are in the mood to start spending again.

Senator Conway mentioned that AGMs have an oversight role and a social element. I have not attended any AGMs that had music and dancing but obviously once they have their official business done they are entitled to relax. I do not object to that.

I wish to make a very important point because I understand this issue may have caused a bit of confusion. It was twice asked if the loan drawn down from the EU under the SURE loan agreement is for credit unions. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with credit unions. We were bringing forward legislation relating solely to credit unions and it was decided in the last few weeks that it would be called the Credit Union (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. However, because of the issue with the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, it was necessary to put this section in, which has nothing whatsoever to do with credit unions. We also had to include the other element as a result of the July stimulus legislation we brought through the Dáil and Seanad some months ago. It provides for the Minister for Finance, solely, to borrow the money from the EU. It has nothing to do with credit unions. We are piggy-backing those two sections into this legislation because they both need to be passed by the end of the year.

I can understand how some people might have thought these sections were connected to credit unions. Unlike the borrowing the State would normally do, with the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, raising loans to finance the State, this mechanism finances the current account of states across the EU for the exceptional costs they have incurred, such as those of the wage subsidy scheme, which has already been paid out. This loan agreement will come directly signed by the Minister for Finance, not by the NTMA, and it will be lodged to the Central Fund. It will be spent in the current account and the spending of that fund has already been approved through the Estimates process. Some of it will carry into next year as well. It is a direct loan into the current account to meet the financial cost of Covid this year and into next year. It will add onto the national debt but as a direct loan, which is a new mechanism for the EU to loan money directly to governments rather than through a lending agency such as the NTMA.

I have responded as best I can to some of the points made. I thank Senators for their input and look forward to progressing this legislation through the remaining Stages in the Seanad.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Monday, 30 November 2020.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.31 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 November 2020.