Wednesday, 31 March 2021

Questions (58)

Mick Barry

Question:

58. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Finance the steps he will take to defend jobs and services in the branch networks of banks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17194/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Finance)

What steps does the Minister intend to take to defend jobs and services in the branch networks of banks? I ask him to make a statement on the matter.

As the Deputy will be aware, decisions with regard to staff and the management of branch networks are the responsibility of the board and management of individual banks, which are run on an independent and commercial basis. As Minister for Finance, I do not have a role in these commercial decisions.

The withdrawal of Ulster Bank from the market and the decision by Bank of Ireland to close 88 branches in the Republic of Ireland are a deep blow, particularly for their customers and staff, and they represent very unfavourable developments for the Irish banking market. Bank of Ireland has commented it will be working closely with its employees at these branches and will be setting out a range of options for them, including relocating to a different branch, moving to a new role in the bank, or voluntary redundancy for those who choose it. I also welcome Bank of Ireland's announcement of a partnership with An Post to ensure counter services will still be available for its customers locally.

With regard to Ulster Bank, while the management of staff matters is a matter for the bank and any counterparty that acquires its business, I expect all stakeholders will be very sensitive to the needs and rights of staff. This includes full compliance with the European communities regulations of 2003, which refer to the protection of employees on the transfer of undertakings and the honouring of all agreements in place between the bank and its staff representative bodies. In addition, I would expect such banks to engage with staff body representatives, as appropriate.

The Deputy will be aware I met with representatives from both Ulster Bank and its parent company in recent months. During these engagements, I strongly emphasised the importance of timely communication with staff, customers and other stakeholders about the future of Ulster Bank. I also met with the Financial Services Union, FSU, and the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, met the FSU yesterday.

Let us recap what we are talking about as regards job losses. In Bank of Ireland there will be 1,400 to 1,700 redundancies. In Ulster Bank 2,800 jobs are in jeopardy, as are 300 at PTSB and 1,500 at AIB. The grand total is more than 6,000. It is not good enough for the Government to say market forces rule and it is not going to interfere, or it appealed to the boards of the banks to play by the Queensberry rules, etc. A pause should be put on these redundancies and closures, at the very least until the end of the Covid pandemic. The FSU has raised the idea of a banking forum, which could look at issues such as improving customer services, improving the work-life balance of staff and so on. Perhaps optional redeployment into other areas could be part of that forum. What does the Minister have to say about that proposal put forward by that trade union?

It is only very recently that I have ever heard Deputy Barry talk about the people who work in the banks. Any time he stood up all he had were words of harsh criticism for banks, which at times I understand, but I have never heard him make any reference to the people who work in the banks in any exchange with me until recent weeks. I welcome his new-found interest in the people who work for the banks.

It has always been a priority of mine to see how we can put policies in place that allow our banks to grow in such a way as to allow them maximise employment. However, I do not play a role in that area nor can I direct the banks on how many people they employ or where those people should be employed. I do not have that power. Deputy Barry wants to complete the nationalisation of our banks so perhaps he might explain how we would be able to pay for that. I regret many of the decisions that have been made and wish they were otherwise but I do not play a role in that regard and I cannot direct the banks to reverse them.

I assure the Minister that my interest in the well-being of bank workers is far from new-found. If he talked to some of the bank workers I have assisted in their various campaigns in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, that might clarify the position for him. We will leave that matter there.

This is a test for the Government. There are massive redundancies coming down the line in retail, and post Covid there will be massive redundancies in other industries as well. Now there are more than 6,000 jobs on the line in the banking sector. Are the Minister and the Government going to stand on the sidelines or stand idly by and say the market rules and there is nothing they can do? Will the Government make meek appeals to the boards of the banks to show a little bit of fair play and compassion or will it intervene in a serious way in an attempt to defend jobs and services? The ball is in the Minister's court.

I am well aware of the responsibilities I have. It is interesting to hear the Deputy refer to the interest he appears to have had for many decades in the people who work for those banks. I stand by the comment I made. The first time he ever raised this matter with me was in recent weeks.

I am of course aware of the challenges many big employers face within our country, but many of them are employers in which this country and its taxpayers do not have a share. As regards the banking system to which we are referring, we do have a share in each of the three banks but we do not have a role in the commercial decisions those banks make. Deputy Barry knows that. He knows I do not have the legal power to intervene and do what he is looking for me to do. He knows I cannot mandate boards of banks to do things differently from what they are planning regarding employment. What I have looked to do is engage directly with the banks. Through the engagement I have had with NatWest, for example, I look to deal seriously with the issues to which the Deputy is referring, as opposed to making the kind of comments he has just made.

Question No. 59 replied to with Written Answers.