Tuesday, 7 July 2015
I am sure the Minister, Deputy Bruton, will agree at this stage there has been enormous concern about the sale of NAMA's Northern Ireland loan book to Cerberus Capital Management. This was raised in the Dáil last week by Deputy Mick Wallace, who raised serious concerns and made serious allegations. We know BBC Northern Ireland has carried out an extensive investigation in a programme yet to be aired, but some of its people have already spoken about it. Many statements have been publicly made by key stakeholders involved, and various leading politicians have denied any involvement whatsoever. I am minded of the remarks made by the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform in April 2014.
He asked the agency to conduct a review with a view to accelerating the sale of its loan book and bundling properties together. He stated: "I have asked [NAMA] if they have any suggestions on how we could work that and would it be possible to use it as a brake on the market." By this, he was asking what would be the consequences at the end of 2015 of taking the residual NAMA book and doing what IBRC did to its residual book in selling it off in a six-month period. One might now argue that one of the consequences was the kind of deal done with Project Eagle, where the entire Northern Ireland property portfolio of NAMA was put into one bundle and sold at a loss of around €200 million to NAMA and a discount of approximately 72%.
We now know that, essentially, £7 million ended up in an Isle of Man bank account. That is not contested. We know the money was in an account controlled by a former managing partner of Belfast law firm Tughans, which acted indirectly for Cerberus, the US investment firm that bought the loan book. We know Pimco, another large US firm, withdrew from a tender process for the same loan book, citing concerns about an unsolicited approach from a number of individuals.
It notified NAMA about the unsolicited attention and, as part of its due diligence process, pulled out because of concerns that it had. NAMA has confirmed that Pimco's compliance staff discovered that its proposed fee arrangement with US law firm Brown Rudnick also included the payment of fees to Tughans and a former external member of NAMA's Northern Ireland advisory committee. This is in the public domain and I am not naming any names. Tughans has now stated that a former partner diverted the professional fees into an account without the knowledge of other partners.
Suffice it to say that this is very serious and profound stuff that goes to the very heart of whether a proper deal was done on behalf of the taxpayer. I acknowledge that we have had many different commissions of investigation established but, given the gravity of what has been alleged and what we already know publicly or NAMA has confirmed, a commission of investigation is urgently required to investigate this entire episode involving the sale of the Northern Ireland loan book to the company concerned. Has the Government made a decision to set up such a commission of investigation?
I thank the Deputy for his question. First, it is important to say that NAMA has a very clear public mandate to deliver best value and in that role it is very actively overseen by the Oireachtas. There is an embedded member of the Comptroller and Auditor General's office working with NAMA, it conducts regular audits and representatives come to the Committee of Public Accounts on a quarterly basis with information. I understand NAMA representatives will be before the Committee of Public Accounts this Thursday, and there will be an opportunity for members of that important committee of the House to question those representatives on the way NAMA manages its affairs.
The issues raised and which are a cause of public concern regarding the destination of a fee are an entirely different matter. It is important to understand the way in which NAMA dealt with this. When it heard there was interest in the loan book, NAMA insisted there would be a competitive process and one of the companies involved, as the Deputy knows, was Pimco. It indicated that its compliance staff had uncovered a proposed fee arrangement and when this came to the attention of NAMA, it decided that if Pimco did not withdraw from the sale, NAMA could not permit it to remain in the sales process. On foot of that, Pimco withdrew from the sale. NAMA also sought assurances, I understand, in respect of the successful bidder in this project that there was no such arrangement in place. It received such assurances.
NAMA has discharged its business in a very thorough way. The issues raised by the Deputy in respect of the decisions made by the NAMA board on whether to sell loans individually or in a bundle are a legitimate matter for questioning at the Committee of Public Accounts. The representative of the Comptroller and Auditor General would have been across that decision at all stages and would have been involved with the auditing of the decision as it was made. This information on how the business was conducted is available to the Comptroller and Auditor General and it would be available to the Committee of Public Accounts. NAMA's representatives will be before the committee on Thursday.
That is not a satisfactory answer in any shape or form. This is not about a routine appearance before the Committee of Public Accounts and it is not the subject of a routine audit. The timeline is very important. The fee arrangement mentioned by the Minister necessitated the withdrawal of Pimco was brought to the attention of NAMA by Pimco, by the way. No auditor or anybody else discovered that. Representatives of Pimco went to NAMA and indicated that its compliance personnel were very concerned about the unsolicited approaches, the nature of those approaches and the fee arrangements. Within a month, NAMA sold the package to another major investment company, Cerberus, apparently with a similar fee arrangement process in place and with the diversion of up to £7 million into an Isle of Man bank account.
It is glaringly obvious that this demands a very serious, independent and objective inquiry, with compellability, into the specifics of this issue. Very serious allegations have been made about what transpired and there are many unanswered questions. This is entirely unsatisfactory. This concerns the largest property sale ever on the island of Ireland, with 850 properties being bundled together and many intermediaries involved. A person was allegedly operating in a discrete office within the Tughans building and people who served on the Northern Ireland advisory committee of NAMA were involved with this issue. That is very serious and I do not buy the line that NAMA just accepted assurances, with that being the end of the matter. It is not the end of the matter. Just as with previous occasions, the Government has been slow to come to the mark on issues like this. I put it to the Minister that the Government must review its response to the issue and establish a commission of investigation to get to the truth.
These fee arrangements were on the side of the buyer and not the seller of the loans. NAMA was not involved in any way and no payment was made by NAMA in any respect of these fees. That was not the case.
The issue of how NAMA conducted its business is very clear. That has been overseen and supervised by the Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General has somebody embedded in NAMA. NAMA's board is appointed by the Oireachtas to get best value and to have this level of Oireachtas oversight. We have a unique level of Oireachtas oversight with respect to this body and the opportunities are there for Members to raise issues at the Committee of Public Accounts, where they have the support of the Comptroller and Auditor General, an expert in forensic accounting advice who is the auditor to NAMA and who will have gone through these issues. Thursday's meeting offers an opportunity to deal with the NAMA involvement.
There are clearly other issues regarding fees paid on the other side of the trade and they are of public concern. I understand the Northern Ireland Assembly is investigating those, as is the Law Society, with respect to the solicitor involved. There are investigations of those matters under way.
I have previously raised widespread concerns about the operation of the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. This deals with billions of euro in public assets being sold to vulture capitalists behind closed doors and without any democratic oversight. NAMA has been ordered by the Government to wind up faster than its 2020 remit, which also raises concerns about a fire sale of assets; we have raised that issue here many times. Sinn Féin has little confidence that the Government is protecting the public interest.
The Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, was aware of concerns about the sale of NAMA's northern portfolio before it even happened because the matter was raised in the Dáil by an Teachta Pearse Doherty. Last week's allegations by an Teachta Mick Wallace suggest insider trading and political croneyism in that sale. These loans had a value of €4.5 billion, but NAMA allegedly sold them to the US vulture capital firm Cerberus for just €1.3 billion. Another US firm, Pimco, withdrew from the sales process in March last year after it brought to NAMA's attention an attempt by a former NAMA adviser, Frank Cushnahan, to solicit payments. Did NAMA report this whole business to the Minister? Did NAMA report to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, the reasons for Pimco's withdrawal? If it did not, is that not a question that needs to be answered? If it did, just three weeks after the withdrawal of Pimco, how did the Cerberus deal proceed, considering the involvement of many of the same actors? Will the Minister accept that this latest scandal demands the establishment of a commission of investigation into the management and operation of NAMA?
We put in place a board, chaired by the former chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, to conduct that business and it had a very clear mandate to deliver best value. It was not told how to conduct its sales or whether they should be done individually or bundled: it was told to secure best value. It was also to be overseen by the Oireachtas, via the Comptroller and Auditor General and through the PAC. A system was put in place to give it the necessary discretion to act in the interest of the taxpayer, to maximise value, but at the same time the Oireachtas had this oversight mechanism. It has pursued that faithfully and has reported faithfully in respect of this.
On the issue of whether a sale of a loan realises the book value, as the Deputy knows - if he does not know he can consult the records of the House - often these banks had only a tiny proportion of the real value that was loaned in their books. That was the nature of the crash we experienced. There is no question that one can expect NAMA to realise the full book value of loans that were transferred to NAMA at a substantial haircut. I do not know what the haircut on individual loans was, nor is that a matter of public knowledge, but it is clear that they did not have anywhere near the book value. NAMA has dealt with this in the way I outlined by open tender. It was a competitive tender. It was overseen by the Comptroller and Auditor General's representative, it was subject to audit in the normal way and it was subject to a report back to the PAC.
The issue of the involvement on the other side of the trade of possible fee structures was brought to the attention of NAMA's board. It acted properly to disallow the company that was bidding in such a way. It informed the Minister of its decision, as it should have, and it then proceeded, when the successful tender came through, to seek assurances that no such fee was being paid and it received those assurances from the successful bidder. NAMA has behaved properly in the way it has conducted its business and the record of the way it handled this speaks for itself.
The Minister was told, therefore, and the sale proceeded, despite all these players still being involved. One of the conditions of the sale process of the northern portfolio, following the withdrawal of Pimco, was that no former director should receive payment as a result of NAMA transactions. However, we know the law firm involved in the Cerberus deal had €7 million lodged in an offshore account. That is an awful lot of public money.
The Minister, Deputy Bruton, says he does not accept that there should be a commission of investigation into this. The Minister for Finance has been silent on these matters. I have asked him and I have written to him to make a statement and he has said nothing. I have seen time after time since I have come here that this Government messes about, prevaricates, puts things on the long finger, kicks them up the road and does not move smartly and sharply. Why would it not establish a commission of investigation? Why would it not let the issue be dealt with by those who have the authority, the ability, the resources and the capacity to deal with them?
My other point is that the Government is proposing to parcel up all of NAMA's remaining portfolios, to be disposed of in one sale. I understand that Cerberus is a leading bidder in that. In the same week this scandal emerged, the Government introduced legislation to cut payments to lone parents. It brought in legislation to pickpocket citizens' income to pay its water charges and it increased the six figure pensions of former taoisigh and Ministers. Surely that type of zeal in dealing with ordinary people needs to be matched with a commitment to dealing with issues of corruption and graft that are causing so much anger. I ask him again to reflect on his answer and to establish a commission of investigation into the management and the operation of NAMA.
I do not accept what the Deputy is saying. The Minister for Finance was informed that the board of NAMA had decided that the company that had this compliance problem should not participate. It was debarred. It was not the case, as Deputy Adams is trying to suggest to the House, that the Minister allowed this to go ahead despite such players being involved.
Further, the successful bidder at the end of the process was asked to give an undertaking and that undertaking was given. I have the text of it:
We confirm that no fee, commission, or other remuneration or payment is payable to any current or former member of the board of the National Asset Management Agency, any current or former member of the executive of NAMA, or any current or former member of an advisory committee of NAMA in connection with any aspect of our participation in the Project Eagle sales process. They got a categorical confirmation of the process.There is obviously an issue in respect of fees, as Deputy Adams says-----
-----that are in an account and that are due to be paid, but those matters are being investigated by the Law Society and by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It is not the case, as Deputy Adams seeks to suggest, that NAMA, which is now proceeding to dispose of its assets, has been found wanting in this. NAMA conducted itself in a proper way. It was found to have dealt with this in a proper way. It is answerable to the PAC and is happy to go before the PAC on Thursday to account for its stewardship. That is how this matter should be dealt with. We do not need inquiries at a moment's notice. We need an Oireachtas that can conduct a questioning of the relevant people and that is what will happen.
We are coming towards the summer recess next week and when we come back in September it will be into budget time. Already, the pre-budget submissions are coming in and no doubt the Government will want to show the growth, improvement and recovery, as it did with the spring economic statement. Just looking at two statistics from the spring economic statement, the general Government debt is down to 105% of GDP and it is expected to go down by another percentage, and GDP growth last year in Ireland was the highest in Europe. What do those statistics mean in real terms to Irish people? What is being presented statistically as improvement, indicating the healthy state of the economy, is actually masking the reality in Ireland. The fine rhetoric and the statistics would give the impression that we are a template of how to turn a financial crisis around. No doubt it has been turned around for some people, but those statistics are masking the suffering of Irish people. I am talking about those on low incomes, lone parents and people with disabilities. I am talking about a community sector working on a shoestring budget and yet providing valuable services in child care, education and in addiction services.
In terms of housing, 3,300 people in Dublin alone are in emergency accommodation and the Dublin City Council housing manager states it cannot cope such is the extent of the problem. Looking at the disconnect, we have the growth and the health of the economy statistics and the reality. How can the statistics mask the reality? I suggest the answer lies in the way we measure poverty and that the current system is unbalanced. One statistic from the current system is that 6.2% of people are in consistent poverty. There are parts of Dublin Central and other parts of the country where the number in consistent poverty is double or treble that. We need to look beyond mere economic indicators as the only indicators determining our prosperity and well-being. For example, in the gross national happiness index, there are 33 indicators, including health, education, socio-cultural participation, community vitality and ecological diversity.
Does the Minister accept the need to look beyond a simplistic monetary measure as the sole indicator so that the Government will have real and comprehensive information about people's lives that would guide policy for the next budget?
I certainly do but I would also say there is tangible improvement occurring. There are now 105,000 more people at work since we started the Action Plan for Jobs. That is 105,000 people's lives back on track. It is also 105,000 people who are contributing on average €20,000 per year into the Exchequer in terms of savings, which amounts to €2 billion available to the Exchequer to deal with many pressing problems.
As the Deputy will be aware, 2015 was written down for another year of cuts, had the troika forecast been accurate, but instead, because we have made progress on employment and other adjustments, we have been able to put money back this year. We have put money back into special needs. We have made provision in health and in many areas of pressing need. We have increased the budgets for the homeless by 22%. Certainly, it is not enough. The economy is a work in progress. I certainly will not rest still until we get back to full employment. We can deliver that by 2018 but it means we have to continue to deliver policies that will allow that sort of growth.
Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan is correct to say that we need to have broader measures of economic welfare than simply economic ones and that we need those wide indicators of sustainability, etc. That is part of the way in which we need to develop impact indicators. Many Departments are developing such impact indicators and, increasingly, they are working to indicators and publish them along with the Estimates so that people can see the impact of how the money is being spent on important measures of performance. I agree with the Deputy that we need to have those broader measures but that cannot deviate from the fact that had we not got 105,000 people back to work, we would not have €2 billion to put back to provide some relief for families for the impact of the past number of years.
A drop in unemployment figures is always welcome but some of those who are now employed are working on wages that do not allow them to live in dignity; it is not a living wage.
Returning to the measure, within the EU, poverty is measured by using relative income poverty lines which involves working out an average or median household income. However, there is a limitation in that regard. In choosing a cut-off point, it is arbitrary and it does not take other factors into account - for example, how far below the poverty threshold people are and the length of time that people have been poor. Therefore, we are not getting a comprehensive picture of the intensity, duration and persistence of poverty and there is a need for other measures that would provide a holistic approach to give a true picture of poverty.
I referred to children living in consistent poverty and we know from the organisations working with them that there has been an increase. That did not happen by accident but came about because of Government policy. If poverty and inequality are to be really reduced and not only statistically, then the Government needs that comprehensive accurate information to guide policy and that is not coming from the current framework for measuring poverty. As long as that continues, the disconnect will also continue between what the statistics say and the reality on the ground.
I agree we can always refine the measures. The measure that struck me most dramatically from my recent reading of the poverty report was the dramatic reduction of poverty for people who go back to work. The risk of poverty is seven times higher if one is out of work than if one is in work. The progress that the strategy has delivered, through Pathways to Work and Action Plan for Jobs, to get people back into employment has made an impact. Some 141,000 people left the live register last year to enter employment and they saw their opportunities improve.
It is not the case that these are all part-time jobs. Some 91% of those additional 105,000 jobs are full-time. Most of them are in strong well-paying sectors, such as ICT, manufacturing, construction and financial services. They are right across the spectrum. There are some in retail and in hospitality where pay levels would not be as high, but we are now in a position to establish a Low Pay Commission to look at the pay levels of those who are on low pay and to gradually, over time and based on evidence, increase those payments. There is a dividend coming through as we get our economy back on track.
I agree with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan that we need a wider range of measures. I know from colleagues that people are straining at the leash to be able to invest more in services but we can only that as we deliver the dividend that is coming from our successful economic approach.