Thursday, 18 February 2021
Covid-19 (Enterprise, Trade and Employment): Statements
They are all very reasonable questions. Unfortunately, I cannot write as quickly as the Deputy can speak, so I may have missed a few of them. I will do my best to answer those I can remember.
It is the case that the average interest rates on mortgages and loans in Ireland are too high, and higher than the EU average. However, they have been falling, and falling substantially in recent years. It should be borne in mind that like-for-like comparisons are often misleading. Other countries have much higher bank charges. For example, we will often find very low interest rates in Denmark, but what we are not told about are the sign-up and bank charges and all the other charges they pay but we do not. Unfortunately, one of the other reasons we have higher interest rates in this State relative to other countries, including the UK and the EU, is historically high levels of non-payment. When people do not pay their debts, whether it is individuals or businesses, it has a social consequence. It makes it harder for others to get credit, and those who do face higher interest rates. Often, Members in this House try to ride both horses in that regard, saying it is okay for people not to pay their debts and then complaining when other people cannot get credit or are expected to pay high interest rates. I do not believe the Deputy is one of those, but there are others in this House who do that and it is wrong. It is also one of the reasons banks in Ireland must have such high capital reserves. That is a major disincentive. Even if a foreign bank comes into Ireland and wants to offer loans or products at a better rate or under better terms, it cannot,because, just by operating in Ireland, it has to set aside large amounts of capital because of our historic high levels of non-payment.
On the issue of Ulster Bank, the Minister for Finance is leading on that for the Government. He has been in discussions with NatWest about potential solutions. I know the transfer of undertakings (protection of employment), TUPE, regulations can apply, but I do not know if they can apply in all circumstances. I do not want to misspeak and get it wrong. they certainly can apply.
On the minimum wage directive, it was a letter that was co-signed with the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Austria. We do have a concern. Ireland has the second or third highest minimum wage in the EU. I am proud to have been part of a Government that increased it by 25% or 30% over the past four or five years. We would not want a scenario in which the minimum wage was set within EU rules that meant we could not increase it or move to a living wage, for example, if there was an EU rule which stated it had to be 50% or 40% of average income, or something similar. We want to ensure it improves conditions and that we do not end up signing up to an EU directive that is a lowest common denominator one, which is what often happens.