As the Deputy will be aware, on 18 March 2020, the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland (BPFI) announced a coordinated approach by banks and other lenders to help their customers, including those in the tourism industry, who were economically impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. The measures included flexible loan repayment arrangements where needed, including loan payment breaks initially for a period up to three months and then subsequently extended for up to six months. The implementation of this voluntary moratorium by the banking industry was a flexible response to the emerging Covid-19 crisis and ensured that a large volume of affected customers could benefit quickly during a fast moving and evolving public health crisis.
Borrowers whose payment break has ended are been given an option to return to full repayments based on the same term of the loan or to extend the term of the loan or to engage further with their bank on suitable arrangements. The BPFI reported, that as of 31 December 2021, approximately 49% of SMEs returned to repaying on the existing term whilst 46% returned to repaying on extended term basis and just over 5% were receiving other supports from lenders.
As Minister for Finance I have no function in the commercial decisions made by banks. However, the Central Bank has confirmed that there is no regulatory impediment to lenders offering payment breaks to borrowers, providing they are appropriate for the individual borrower circumstance. The BPFI has also reiterated that standard payment breaks continue to be part of the wide range of tailored solutions which are being made available to customers upon assessment of their situation.
SME borrowers have regulatory protections via the Central Bank's SME lending regulations. The SME Regulations https://centralbank.ie/news/article/regulations-for-firms-lending-to-smes-from-2016 set out the required treatment of SMEs by regulated entities in relation to various aspects of business lending. This includes detailed provisions around the credit application process, requirements regarding security or collateral, credit refusals and withdrawals, handling complaints, managing arrears and having in place policies for engaging with SMEs in financial difficulty. The options could include additional flexibility, and this could be a short-term arrangement such as additional periods without payments or interest-only repayments, or if appropriate more long term arrangements. The Central Bank recently wrote to all lenders indicating that lenders are to ensure that they have sufficient expert resources to assess individual borrower circumstances, and to offer appropriate and sustainable solutions to affected borrowers in a timely manner in line with regulatory requirements. The Central Bank’s clear expectation is that lenders engage effectively and sympathetically with distressed borrowers.
In addition, Credit Review https://www.creditreview.ie was established to assist those SMEs and farm borrowers that have had credit applications of up to €3 million refused or indeed an existing credit facility withdrawn or amended by the participating bank. SMEs can apply to Credit Review after exhausting the internal appeals process in the participating institution, which are currently AIB, BOI, Ulster Bank and Permanent TSB.
I will continue to work with the Central Bank, as regulator, to ensure that the Central Bank consumer protection and other applicable frameworks will be fully available to all borrowers that will still need support.