Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Ceisteanna (34, 41)

Brendan Smith

Ceist:

34. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Finance if he has had discussions with a company (details supplied) in relation to the need to retain a bank and its network of branches here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26774/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mick Barry

Ceist:

41. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Finance the contacts he has had with the management of a bank (details supplied); the steps he will take to protect jobs, services and the rights of mortgage customers in the event of the bank being sold by its parent company; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26683/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (9 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Finance)

As the Minister is aware, there are widespread concerns in many communities about the statement by NatWest that it is considering all strategic options in the future of Ulster Bank. Ulster Bank has 88 branches in our State, it has more than 2,500 employees and it has a substantial presence in the Border region, particularly in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, with three branches in County Cavan and one in Monaghan. It has been an integral part of Irish commercial life and it has been trading in our country for almost 200 years. Any thought of the closure of this bank and its branch network would be devastating for so many communities and for the employees of the bank as well.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 34 and 41 together.

I am aware of the reports that NatWest is engaged in a strategic review of its operations, including those of Ulster Bank Ireland. The Government has no formal role in such a review or in any commercial decisions that result as these are a matter for the board and management of the bank and its parent company, NatWest. I understand that the process is ongoing and that no decisions have been made. Therefore, I will not comment or speculate on possible outcomes as there is no basis for such speculation available to me and any comment I might make could be open to misinterpretation. As the Deputy has just done, however, I want to acknowledge that news of this review is, of course, unsettling for all who could be affected by it, especially for the staff and the customers and communities who depend on this branch network. I expect Ulster Bank to keep all its stakeholders, especially its staff and customers, fully informed about any developments in the review and to engage promptly with them in relation to any proposals or decisions that result from the review.

The continued presence of a viable and active Ulster Bank in the Irish market has been an important dimension of how banking has been organised and supplied in Ireland over many years. Ulster Bank is a significant employer and it has 88 branches across our country. It is also important in terms of providing competition in the Irish retail banking market. The bank will have to keep the Central Bank of Ireland fully informed and comply with its requirements in its decision making process.

I reiterate that I have no role in any review undertaken by a commercial entity but I and my officials will carefully monitor any developments in this area.

As I said, there are 88 branches serving 88 communities. They are large communities nowadays because a lot of branches were closed over the years due to rationalisation measures and there has been a loss of services to many communities. Any further diminution in banking competition in this country would be concerning. Ulster Bank is the third largest bank and we lack banking competition in this country.

The Minister previously told me, in reply to a parliamentary question, that he would expect the bank to keep its customers and employees up-to-date with whatever it was planning or proposing. I would also like the Minister to convey the concerns of communities and employees throughout the country on these suggestions and this narrative that have been in place for some time. I am concerned and I know the Minister has no formal role but there is nothing to stop communication being made through the Central Bank or the Department on the importance of this bank to so many communities and employees. God forbid the branches would close when one considers the small enterprises that have been affected by Covid-19 that are struggling to survive through the pandemic. Where would they go to transfer to another bank if they lost their current banking arrangement?

The issue here is the threat to the future of Ulster Bank. We are talking about 2,500 jobs and 88 communities in which the bank is based and in many cases it is the only bank serving those communities. We are also talking about the interests of many thousands of mortgage holders who will fear Ulster Bank being transferred into new hands and those new hands having claws in them in the form of vultures. They will fear what will happen to their mortgages if they fall into arrears or if they have arrangements with the bank that expire and new arrangements have to be put in place. The Minister has indicated that he would trust that Ulster Bank will keep stakeholders informed. I do not trust Ulster Bank to do that. We found out about this from a leak in the parent company. The Government has to be poised for action here. The question of nationalisation in order to defend jobs, mortgage holders and services will need to be put on the agenda and it will be part of the debate on this.

My exact wording was that I expect Ulster Bank to keep stakeholders, the Government and those who depend upon them for their jobs or for lending informed. Deputy Brendan Smith raising this question has given me the opportunity to make clear my expectation on that communication. As I did with the earlier question that was put to me, I want to acknowledge how valuable Ulster Bank is and will continue to be from an employment and a lending point of view within our country. I am well aware of the value of the role it plays in the communities Deputy Brendan Smith is referring to and I will continue to monitor developments carefully in this area.

I am available to Deputies who are particularly concerned about this matter for any further question or comment.

I thank the Minister for his reply. In my constituency, we have Ulster Bank branches in Ballyconnell, Cavan, Ballyjamesduff and Monaghan town. Traditionally, Ulster Bank has very much been associated with the Border region and it has had a very successful business, by and large, for the most of 200 years in communities right throughout our country. As the third largest bank in the country, we cannot afford to lose it.

From speaking with employees and interaction with private individuals and people with small and medium enterprises, I know Ulster Bank's business is across all sectors of our economy. From the perspective of employees, business and enterprise and so many communities, it is essential a clear message goes to NatWest that we want to see Ulster Bank retained in its current format with its 88 branches and more than 2,500 employees.

There is concern among employees and I would like to know if the Minister has any indication if an announcement is imminent on NatWest's intentions.

The Minister has said he will monitor the matter very carefully, which is good, as we will monitor it very carefully too, as I am sure the workers in Ulster Bank will do as well. The concern here is that a bank that has made much profit through the years has hit a bump in the road and lost €276 million, according to its report for the first six months of this year, because of the Covid-19 crisis. The bank is going to make a short-term decision to put profit above the needs of the workers, mortgage holders and communities. That must not be allowed to happen.

There has been some speculation that a bank in which the State has majority ownership, Permanent TSB, could potentially take over if there was an attempt to withdraw Ulster Bank from the market here. This would effectively be a form of nationalisation, although I would like to see a form of nationalisation that would really prioritise the needs of the workers, the mortgage holders and the communities. We will also be monitoring the position very carefully.

The concern of the employees and those who use the facilities of Ulster Bank, particularly, as Deputy Smith notes, in constituencies like mine and the Border constituencies where the bank still has a significant presence, despite a retrenchment over recent years, is if the Minister will communicate directly with NatWest. Does the Government intend to engage actively in the process or will the Minister just monitor this as everybody else will do?

I know the Minister for Finance is not the shareholder and the bank is owned by a party in another jurisdiction. Has the Minister any intention to reach out or engage with parties? Is there any plan B? We need competition and for staff employment to be retained. We need that presence in communities, many of which are rural. There are options to increase the presence of existing banks or, as we have seen, new players in the market. Unfortunately, these new players do not seem to want a physical branch structure but nonetheless, there may be opportunities. Does the Minister intend to engage directly with those involved?

I thank Deputies Barry, Smith and Doherty for their questions. I have already contacted the parent bank, NatWest, to ascertain the status of the alleged reports. My contact with the bank has informed the answer I gave to Deputies this afternoon. As the process develops within NatWest, I will of course raise issues and perspectives that I have in this regard. I absolutely understand the concerns that employees will have at this point, not to mention the businesses that are depending on Ulster Bank for lending and investment.

I have personal experience of the unsettling effect of an announcement like this for those who work for the bank. I understand the concerns about their future. I must emphasise, as Deputy Doherty acknowledged, that the State does not have a share in this bank. The parent bank is located in the UK and Ulster Bank is part of its broader structure and company. Notwithstanding those constraints, I will contact the parent bank on the matter.

Questions Nos. 35 and 36 answered with Question No. 32.