I thank the Minister of State for listening. I raised this issue on Questions on Promised Legislation, and so have other colleagues throughout the House, to try to deal with credit unions. While this is a miscellaneous provisions Bill, it is important that we deal with the credit union aspect of it. Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh le gach credit union fud na tíre. Every credit union in my county, from Nenagh to Carrick-on-Suir and in all the towns and various villages, must be saluted. It is in the real spirit of the late Canon Hayes that we support our communities. They are of the community, for the community and with the community. We all know the bad experience we had with the banking crash. Now we see the bad experiences continue with the banks and what they are doing. The Bill is an effort to deal with it.
I salute the board members, volunteers, management and staff of all credit unions in Tipperary and throughout the country for the work they do. In Clonmel recently, and, in fairness, I have not seen it anywhere else, the credit union erected a lovely shelter along the footpath to allow people who are standing outside because of Covid to shelter from the rain, wind and hail. I salute them because I see people standing out banks and they do not even want them inside any more. I salute the board and John Courtney and John Walsh and various people who are involved, and were involved, and thank them for caring for the people in the community. It is a lovely initiative. Our pillar banks do not mind whether people perish from the rain or wind or from vulture funds. They have lost the spirit and their reason to be.
The amendment to the Credit Union Act 1997 to make provision for the holding of certain meetings of credit unions virtually is very important. We have all had to change massively with working from home and using virtual meetings. They are difficult and challenging. I support some of the amendments that are being suggested because it will be very difficult to allow proxy votes in advance of AGMs. There are technical issues to be worked out. When I raised this two weeks ago, it was in the context of being very privileged in Clonmel to have a very profitable and healthy credit union. Approximately €1.7 million is to go back to the pockets of borrowers and members before Christmas, as happens every year, but the fact it could not hold the AGM meant that this could not been done. For the members of the credit union in Clonmel and its hinterland of Fethard, Newcastle and Ardfinnan, the excellent credit union in Cahir and those in Kilsheelan and out into the Nire and Ballymacarbry, that money would have been a godsend not only to them - they are entitle to it - but to the business people in those areas who, God knows, have suffered so much this year. It will never be forgotten.
We often say ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann about a person but we will not want a bliain like 2020 again. In fairness, I know the credit union movement has offered a loan scheme to members to tide them over Christmas and this is vital because we cannot have the money lenders and loan sharks, who are unscrupulous people, draining the lifeblood out of families at this particular time. It is so pressurised for parents of young children, and there is Santa Claus and every other need of people at this time of year. The days are short, the nights are long, it is cold and heating and proper clothing are needed. Credit unions have always been to help and support them.
The Bill will amend the Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act 2010 to include the European Union as a facility lender and make provision on certain loan agreements entered into by the State with the European Union. The European Union has shown some solidarity this time, which is shocking. Others have mentioned the social contract with the EU. When we had the bank crash and the so-called bailout - I referred to it as a clean-out and I voted against it because we were charged up to 6% interest on money when we could get it from the European Central Bank, ECB, for less than 3%, and that was expensive enough - where was the solidarity? It was nowhere to be seen.
Ireland has approximately 250,000 small and medium enterprises, SMEs. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle would know them from Gaillimh and ar fud na tíre. They play a significant role in Ireland's non-financial business economy and employ approximately 70% of the workforce here at 885,000 people. Many of these small businesses got their start from the credit unions. Banks did not have faith in them when they had their dream and they had the initiative to set up small businesses and self-employed people took the plunge from a permanent job. We need these innovators and leaders and we need to support them. In the vast majority of cases, it was a credit union that launched them and had confidence in them. The people in the credit unions knew the families and their good healthy relationship with the credit unions. These businesses and their employees are being let down by the Government in two very serious ways. The first is in the context of the €2 billion credit guarantee loan scheme for businesses administered by the pillar banks, namely, AIB, Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank. This scheme is failing the people badly. It is not functioning. The money was meant to be available to SMEs but it is not. The way the business liquidity scheme is being operated and administered means that thousands of small businesses will be forced to close due to a lack of cash flow. The cost of this will be the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Credit unions offer the space and viable liquidity and supports when businesses such as those to which I refer need it most.
Many of these companies are finding it difficult to collect this year's accounts because of Covid and people's loss of confidence. They are struggling. These small businesses have great relationships with people and they always pay, but it is proving difficult right now.
Disgracefully, only 3% of the €65 million available under the scheme has been approved for businesses. What is wrong? This is shocking. The Minister of State will take up this matter because he is a practical man, supports credit unions and small businesses and has an accountancy background. I have worked with him on many issues. For all intents and purposes, the banks are closed where supporting business is concerned. Other countries have drawn down copious amounts of the overall fund, and rightly so. I do not have the percentages with me, but we are entitled to our share.
The scheme must be overhauled and simplified and the banks' influence over the process must be removed or reduced. The scheme should be widened to cover all SMEs. I see a role for credit unions in this regard. For the past ten yeas or more, a jaundiced eye has been cast towards credit unions by the Central Bank and the pillar banks. When former Deputy Michael Noonan was Minister, he tried to squeeze the lifeblood out of credit unions - I heard him in the corners - and diminish their ability. There was jealousy of credit unions. Yes, one or two made big mistakes. Clonmel Credit Union was almost forced to take one over in Charleville, County Limerick. Thank God, that did not happen. There were problems in a few places, but nothing like the problems in the banks. The credit unions are all local and driven by voluntary boards.
Instead of being closed next June, the scheme should be extended to the end of 2021. There should be a role for credit unions. The pillar banks are not functioning and, as I pointed out when the relevant legislation was before the House, they should never have got their paws on this money because they would not deliver it. Only 3% has been drawn down as we near the year's end. That is shocking.
The European Central Bank, ECB, has made an unprecedented €1.5 trillion available at interest rates as low as -1%. That amount of money is a figure I cannot count or comprehend. It has been made available to eurozone banks directly with the aim of helping the economies of EU member states. Ireland represents approximately 5% of the EU's economy. Therefore, Irish banks should have proportional access to €9 billion of the amount distributed in order to lend to and support businesses and families at interest rates as low as -1%. What is wrong? Why are we not doing our job? Why are we not availing of that money? The banks are not doing it, so we should give the money to the credit unions, which have always stood up and supported people; ní neart go cur le chéile. They have the interests of small businesses in rural areas at heart. We are wiping out small businesses and this funding is not being drawn down. I would love to see the Minister of State addressing this shameful issue.
When I speak to any small business in Tipperary, it tells me that it cannot get a loan and is crippled by the lack of cash flow because of the pandemic. The Minister of State knows this better than I do. Every Deputy knows it. We are rightfully entitled to €9 billion of the EU fund. What kind of love affair do we have with the EU that we have to be the best boys in Europe? We are the best boys in Europe in terms of keeping Covid figures down, yet we have the most severe restrictions. Businesses are being wiped out and there are issues relating to mental health, cancer operations etc. This money is available to be drawn down and I want to know why it has not been. Could the credit unions not avail of some of it? They are honourable and can be trusted. One or two did some reckless lending and were punished, but they cannot all be tarred with the same brush. Clonmel Credit Union and other credit unions should be allowed to pay a dividend.
I do not know whether this legislation is too late, but I compliment the Government on introducing it. It will go to the Seanad now, which I hope will pass it. I also hope that the President will be able to sign it into law. Even if that process extends beyond the Christmas period, it will be enacted early in the new year. Some people will have to get loans. That is not ideal. In fairness, credit unions have offered loans, but loan sharks are licking their lips and their greasy paws. They are out there in housing estates, calling to people and literally intimidating them. Actually, they are not intimidating people, but they are offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh like the three wise men, but they are not wise and I would advise wise people to avoid them if at all possible. It would be horrific and shocking if people were forced into their arms.
Irish banks are not making loans available, yet the Government continues to trust them blindly to administer the credit guarantee scheme. With the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence, I will discuss the removal of the moratorium. I know several business people who are receiving phone calls and letters demanding money, but the Government has taken away their ability to earn that money, keep their employees working, pay their taxes etc. We are treating them appallingly but we are treating the banks with kid gloves and rubbing butter onto something. I will not say what I was going to say, but this situation is shocking. The Government's inactive policy appears to be about protecting the banking sector and not small businesses. This is sad.
Credit unions were the start. They lit the spark. They are the spirit of meitheal and of the late, great Canon John Hayes. They support small industries and businesses and have been with them all the way. I salute them. It is shameful that the policies of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will cost jobs. Why can we not think of na daoine beaga? I mentioned this matter to the Taoiseach this morning, but I do not know whether he understood me. He made some reference to my stature. I am talking about the little people. They are the backbone - shopkeepers, small contractors, undertakers, painters, plasterers and so on. They are out there. Think about all the shops in our towns. They have advanced and changed. Think about the hairdressers, nail shops and beauty salons that have mushroomed. They are good people. Maybe they had jobs before going into business. Credit unions have nearly always helped them out because they had to go back.
Why is the liquidity from the ECB not being availed of in Ireland? What has the Government done to ensure that banks are making other schemes for small businesses work? Only 3% has been drawn down. I would not be happy if the figure was 90%, but 3% is shocking. Will the Minister of State clarify why the Government is allowing this to happen?
Turning to the Bill's provisions, mention has been made of the start-up relief for entrepreneurs, SURE, scheme. It should be used to support families and workers.
Regarding the concept of one man, one vote, we do not want to see the same situation here as the US presidential election with all of its court challenges. There will be no court challenges in Ireland, but credit unions are finding it difficult to ensure the nearly sacred accountability to and representation of its members. Members have vóta amháin le gach duine, fear, bean nó na daoine óga when they are of an age to open an account. That members have just one vote each is sacrosanct and must be protected.
What about the role of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, IFAC? Its name is a pity. I am well aware of another organisation called "IFAC" in Tipperary. It is an accountancy firm that was set up by the IFA and is not to be confused with the fiscal council. Why have we ignored this issue and taken our eye off the ball? For how long has there been a vacancy on the IFAC's board? This is shameful and shows that the Government is not concentrating on supporting credit unions. I have no comments to make about the people on the board. I do not know their abilities. I am sure they are good and well meaning, but one person has served two terms, which is the restriction under the Act. I believe it is in section 14 of this Bill that the Government is asking the Dáil to approve allowing people to serve a third term. That is dangerous. We need fresh blood and new thinking. I sit on several voluntary community boards. They are accountable to the State and a certain number of members have to leave the board every year.
Finding volunteers is very onerous but we have to do it. As I said, I support Deputy Doherty's amendments in this regard. The voting in advance of the AGM is scary because, as the Minister of State will be aware, these things can be mutilated. Good and honest people would do this in good faith but it could be abused and could be a process we do not want.
I do not know what will happen as regards this legislation being passed here or when it will pass through the Seanad and be signed into law by the President. Will we be able to hold virtual AGMs this side of Christmas? I do not think so. The timescale is very tight, and the credit unions must be able to ensure safety and democracy and all the security systems surrounding that.
As for social housing, 56 homeless people have died in Dublin to date this year, and the credit unions have been ready, willing and able in this regard. We have considered the Sparkasse model in Germany and the way other countries have adapted to help people to get housing loans. They cannot get the loans here. There is the Rebuilding Ireland scheme. I heard this morning at the Business Committee that the housing committee is to waive pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill brought forward by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien. We are making a lot of noise and introducing a lot of legislation but we are not building the houses. The credit unions can play and have played a vital role in providing an opportunity to many people to upgrade and extend their houses for family members when they move on and get into relationships and have kids. The credit unions are there for that. The Central Bank always casts a jaundiced eye over them and they are being treated very harshly. When one or two of them, or perhaps a few more, erred, we threw the kitchen sink at them and they were all promptly closed. When the banks were reckless, however, and when we saw that appalling vista, we brought in emergency legislation to bail them out. The Minister of State and I and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be paying that debt back for decades to come. I voted for that legislation, much to my regret. I have said many times in this House that it was the worst political decision I ever made in my life. We have got nothing from the banks only disdain and mistreatment of borrowers. In most of the banks I go into now I do not say a word to the staff behind the counter because there are so few of them. It is robots and machines one meets now. The banks do not want customers inside their doors. However, I saw on Monday that the credit union in Clonmel put up a shelter for its members outside the door, on the footpath. It gives shelter to members queuing outside at present. I salute again the staff in Clonmel Credit Union, the board of management, the management and everybody who goes into the credit union.
I thank the Minister of State for bringing forward this legislation. I hope it will enable what I have spoken about. I thank the members of credit unions and offices, the people who spoke to me about this and other colleagues. This is a reasonable effort. We should be making legislation to help people, especially in this severe time of lockdown, loneliness, mental health issues and God knows what else. We will be seen to do this if we can. I wish the Bill a speedy passage through this House and through Seanad Éireann. I hope it will get up to Áras an Uachtaráin and get signed and enacted into law speedily.