Tuesday, 28 May 2019
Vulture Funds: Motion [Private Members]
“That Dáil Éireann:
notes that:— the Programme for a Partnership Government commits to providing greater protection for mortgage holders, tenants and small and medium-sized enterprises whose loans have been transferred to non-regulated entities (‘vulture funds’);
— chapter 8 of the Central Bank of Ireland’s Consumer Protection Code 2012 includes a requirement that ‘where an account is in arrears a regulated entity must seek to agree an approach (whether with a personal consumer or through a third party nominated by the personal consumer) that will assist the personal consumer in resolving the arrears’;
— Article 3 of the European Union’s directive on unfair terms in consumer contracts provides that: ‘A contractual term which has not been individually negotiated shall be regarded as unfair if, contrary to the requirement of good faith, it causes a significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations under the contract, to the detriment of the consumer’;
— the decision by Allied Irish Bank (AIB) to sell a significant volume of non-performing buy-to-let loans to Cerberus, involving buy-to-let loans with an approximate value of €1 billion involving at least 2,200 customers;
— the decision by AIB was preceded by the sale of 6,139 loans linked to family homes by Permanent TSB, despite such accounts meeting the terms of their agreed arrangements;
— research conducted by Free Legal Advice Centres (FLAC) indicates that there are currently 111,504 restructures of principal dwelling house mortgages in place, of which more than 27,000 are split mortgages, more than 36,000 are capitalisation of arrears arrangements, and more than 13,000 are term-extensions; and
— the most recent statistical mortgage arrears report from the Central Bank of Ireland, to the end of the last quarter of 2018, concerning principal dwelling houses shows that the significant majority of approximately 14,000 loans acquired by unregulated loan owners in the course of the last quarter are performing restructures; andcalls on the Government to:— accept the conclusions reached by FLAC that there is a ‘significant inequality of arms between the lender and borrower’ where the borrower ‘may have no meaningful influence on the content of the terms of the loan and may be wholly unaware that the lender is reserving the right to sell the loan on to an entity of its choice’;
— ensure that the Central Bank of Ireland’s Report on the Effectiveness of the Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears in the context of the Sale of Loans by Regulated Lenders, which was furnished to the Minister for Finance in 2018, be given legislative force to ensure that all parts of the code are expressly admissible in repossession hearings;
— recognise that so-called ‘vulture funds’ pose an immediate and overwhelming threat to borrowers in rural and urban Ireland;
— accept that unregulated entities have demonstrated a clear unwillingness to abide by voluntary codes of conduct; and
— revise the Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears in order to ensure that provisions 38 and 39 mandatorily require lenders to provide solutions.”
I am very happy to introduce the motion on behalf of the Rural Independent Group and thank the Minister for taking the debate. The Programme for a Partnership Government commits to providing protection for distressed mortgage holders and borrowers, tenants and small to medium-sized enterprises whose loans have been sold or transferred to non-regulated entities, which effectively are vulture funds. The Fine Gael Government has not lived up to this commitment.
Vulture funds are private equity companies such as pension or investment funds, which seek to make a quick profit from distressed mortgage holders by buying cheap and selling on at a quick profit without any compassion or social conscience. Effectively, they are buying debt and turning it into a quick profit. That surely goes against the principles of this Government. Vulture funds are buying distressed loans in large batches from our pillar banks, which are almost exclusively owned by the taxpayer, such as AIB and Bank of Ireland. During the last economic boom, banks acted irresponsibly by lending money by way of mortgages to people who did not have the capacity to repay those mortgages, particularly in an economic downturn. However, those very banks take no responsibility for that reckless lending. The same banks were bailed out by the taxpayer to ensure their survival. In return for that support, banks are allowed to sell these distressed mortgages at a substantial write-down to vulture funds that demand rapid repayment, compulsory sale or repossession with no regard to the circumstances of the mortgage holder or their tenants, many of whom effectively become homeless, thus becoming the responsibility of the State, which has to house them in whatever accommodation is available or place them in emergency temporary accommodation to the detriment of the family and at great loss to the State. This makes no sense.
I am not an economist or an expert on these matters but I do understand the difference between a State supporting its citizens and a State which turns its back on its citizens either directly or indirectly. Mr. David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation, which has assisted over 10,000 families restructure their mortgages, states “it is not just loans that are being sold, but real families, real people and real lives that are being fed to [vulture funds], and this is a real social issue.” Banks have resisted personal insolvency legislation and taken legal challenges to various aspects of legislation to prevent its impact on writing down debt. It is not acceptable to allow vulture funds to come into our country, act in the manner in which they conduct their business and not interfere meaningfully to protect our citizens. What the Minister permits, he condones.
This is not just a financial disaster but also a social and cultural disaster for many families who have suffered family break-up, mental distress and suicide. The activities of banks and vulture funds have far-reaching destructive effects which go far beyond the financial loss. The financial recovery of the past few years has not been even or uniform and there have been many casualties along the way. It is incumbent on this Fine Gael Government to protect its citizens from the effects of the financial crash, and defend them from those who seek to profit from their misfortune. There is an absolute expectation that this Government would protect its citizens from banks selling performing and so-called non-performing loans, restructured loans, and bad debts to entities about which we know little and which are poorly or weakly regulated, faceless global conglomerates of which people are afraid.
A substantial proportion of the 10,000 people in emergency accommodation, including 4,000 children, are there directly or indirectly as a result of vulture fund activityDo these vulture funds pay tax to the Irish economy and if so, how much? This is not just an abstract debate about fiscal housekeeping. What value is placed in maintaining the structure and social health of a family and a household when compared to the quick profit of a vulture fund? Is what is happening today in keeping with the principles articulated by the First Dáil in 1919, which we commemorated last January? Is it consistent with the Democratic Programme which was delivered on that day, the Proclamation of 1916 or the Constitution of 1937? Are vulture funds in keeping with the moral and social responsibility of this Government? Do vulture funds operate to the same level of regulation as is expected from our pillar banks?
Housing, homelessness and, by extension, the activities of vulture funds were among the main issues raised on the doorsteps during the local and European elections. The Government says it is going to become greener following the local elections. I would suggest that it should also become more compassionate and caring, listening to its citizens and being more responsive to their needs rather than to financial vulture funds that hold profit as their only goal.
Rather than facilitating vulture funds to operate in Ireland, we need to highly regulate them but also to reform our banking system by introducing competition into the market by promoting a community banking system along the lines of the Sparkasse banks in Germany or the Kiwibank in New Zealand. Providing banking services via our post office network would provide loans and mortgages at far lower and affordable interest rates, would plough the profits back into the local community and would give a lifeline to our struggling post office network. Instead, Fine Gael seems to be intent on protecting the pillar banks from such competition.
The vulture funds have their defenders. The Taoiseach thinks they are good, as does the Minister for Finance. The Central Bank is okay with them. The European Central Bank has recently been putting more pressure on Irish lenders to reduce the number of non-performing loans on their books. This is where vulture funds come into play. In many cases, banks are happy to sell large portfolios of non-performing mortgages to these funds, generally at a significant discount when compared with the original value of the loans.
This motion asks the House to say once again that vulture funds are not okay and that we must keep reminding the Government and the financial establishment that they are not working in the best interests of Irish families. Politicians who fail to challenge the credo that vulture funds are good are not doing their duty. Politicians who support the unregulated activities of vulture funds are working against the interests of Irish families. The reality for those whose loans are sold to a vulture fund is that they are far more likely to lose their homes.
Whatever arrangement vulture funds are allowed to enter into, the net effect should not result in the loss of a family home or families becoming homeless. Fine Gael should not allow vulture funds to say to distressed mortgage holders, "nothing personal, it's just business" I remind the Minister of the maxim, “what you permit, you promote or condone." What will the Government do to protect families within their family homes from faceless vulture funds?
I thank our Whip, Deputy Mattie McGrath, and David Mullins and Máiread McGrath in his office, for the preparatory work they did in bringing forward this very important motion. Each and every one of us, from all political parties and none, are all dealing with one issue which is the same to all of us, namely, the people who are affected by the crisis that has not gone away. There may have been an economic recovery for some but there are many others who are really in trouble. As lately as today I had three new cases of people in serious financial difficulty. The categories of people I am talking about are homeowners in their family homes, small business people such as someone with a small shop or a small, struggling business, small publicans, and the likes of a farmer who tried expanding and borrowed money to try to better himself and his output and make his business sustainable.
Those are the very people we as politicians should be doing everything we can to protect. We should be doing everything possible to help further their best interests and carry them into the future. I remember many years ago when it was thought that planners and other such people were trying to prevent people living in the countryside. There might have been condemnation of a farmer who sold a site. A funny thing about that practice, however, was that, even though the farmer might not have wanted to sell, the sale of a site might have sustained the family's small business and made it viable for years to come. The sale of half an acre might have made it possible to build sheds, install a slatted tank and improve the rest of the farm. A small business was helped at a critical time in the life of the farmer and people were also brought into the rural community.
This motion is an effort to help people and protect them from vulture funds. The same thing happens now in many places when properties become available. Hundreds of units are being sold to big groups of investors at home and abroad. We will regret that in future. We are driving people involved in private rental accommodation out of the business. Those people are only trying to better themselves and make a living. I am talking about people who might have only one to four units for rent. Those people are not going to remain in that business given some of the proposals being brought forward by other Members of this House. They are trying to criminalise those types of people. We are going to finish up with people renting accommodation from landlords with as many as 500 or 1,000 units. It will be possible for those property owners to create a monopoly in the market and increase rents to whatever price they want. We will rue the day we allow that to happen.
Turning to the vulture funds, I have long worried about the Taoiseach's comments regarding their activities. Those funds endanger young and middle-aged couples with mortgages. I am not surprised, however. To judge people's ability to make good decisions it is necessary to look at what they have done themselves. I hate talking about someone who is not here. I would much prefer if the Taoiseach was here when I speak about his own life experience in business, or lack of it. It is the same with other Government Ministers and people in charge. I consider what they have done in their own lives. Have they ever paid a week's wages to any man, woman or child at the end of a week? If they have not done much in their own lives, it is difficult for them to know the problems faced by people in business. I am talking predominantly about small business people. It is very difficult to understand the problems other people face without having experience.
I worry when I hear the Taoiseach stating that he thinks it is a good thing to have vulture funds coming in here, buying up masses of loan books and then being in charge of the destiny of those people. This is happening at a time when the families concerned might not even know the sale has taken place. That is horrific. It is a major worry.
We are dealing with the people affected daily in our clinics. We are dealing with the upset and trauma being caused to families and the damage inflicted on their financial situations. It is no wonder that we and others have brought motions like this before the House. We want to see the Minister bring in legislation that has teeth and power and that will be meaningful to the people in our society who feel vulnerable. It is our duty. We are here as elected representatives to help those people. That is why we are asking the Minister to not just pay lip service to this motion and to not just state he is taking it on board while coming up with a counter proposal, as he has done, to water it down and change it.
We are trying to be decisive and firm. The Government and the Dáil should be united behind people who are trying to work and pay their debts in a respectable fashion. Those people are only trying to get on in life, rear their children and educate them in the best way possible. All they want is a fair crack of the whip. They certainly do not want to see billionaires and vulture funds coming into this country and taking over without proper legislation being in place to provide protection.
Another thing I cannot let go without mention tonight is what is going on now with what are called our pillar banks. Not many things drive me mad. I am angered, however, when I see advertisements stating that a bank is "Backing Brave" and putting workers first and all of the rest of this rubbish. Banks are trying to give the impression that they are loaning out money. They are not. That is the case with AIB in particular. It is impossible for anybody to get money from that bank. Every possible obstacle is placed in the way of a potential borrower. AIB is making it impossible for anybody, whether young or middle-aged and beyond, to borrow money.
I would not have a problem with that if the bank were to admit to what is happening. I would accept it if AIB stated tomorrow that it, and the other banks, are shut down, not loaning money and making it impossible for borrowers. I would accept it if the bank told people to not waste their time going in. That is what the banks are doing now and I am sick of seeing what is happening to people. I am sick of hearing stories about people being fooled and codded up to their eyeballs by people in suits regarding why money cannot be loaned. We must remember that those banks would not exist and would not be in business now except for the taxpayers.
The people in charge of giving out money would not be in their jobs without the taxpayers. Those people, however, are now trying to cod their customers with their fancy slogans and advertisements. The banks are putting up pictures of a farmer and a tractor with a plough behind it. The slogan being used is "We're Backing Brave". It is absolute nonsense.
They are not loaning money. I am thinking of a nice respectable family, a young couple starting out or a young individual, perhaps between 20 years old and 30 years old, deciding to go to the bank to see if it might be possible to get a loan for a business or a mortgage. Those people are all wasting their time because nothing is being done to help them. All we see are the fancy advertisements on the television, in the newspapers and on the windows of the banks asking people to call in because they are lending. Those banks are not lending. They might be lending to millionaires and big businesses. Perhaps that is why at the end of the year it is possible for them to state that they backed different industries with so many hundreds of millions or billions of euro.
All I know is that from the point of view of the ordinary person, the people we represent, the banks are not lending. I condemn what the Government has done. There have been calls for many years from myself and others - including people like Tom O'Callaghan of the Independent Postmasters Group of Ireland - for the introduction of proper community banking. When I refer to community banking, I mean banking where any profits accrued go back into rural communities, as they do in similar models around the world. It was a sensible proposition and there was nothing wrong with it. Did the Government support it? No, it did not. It went around the houses in every possible way. It went around the dresser and the kitchen table to avoid supporting it and came up with every suggestion in the world except what we wanted.
I was terribly disappointed that the Government would not take our proposal on board.
When we looked at other parts of the world, we did not need to go further than England, Scotland and Wales to see how many post offices were lost. When one compares that with countries with proper community banking, one sees that they saved their post offices. We wore ourselves to a thread trying to tell that to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and other members of the Government. We did everything we could to persuade them, but they did not listen. As a result, what I predicted many years ago in the House has, very sadly, come to pass. We have not lost ten or 20 post offices, we have lost hundreds and I can say to the Minister with absolute confidence that we will lose hundreds more because of Government policy and inaction. We lost those post offices, which there was no need to do. We could have kept people banking in their local communities at a time when pillar banks are doing nothing to help and support our people. Rather, they are trying only to make fools of them. I really do not like that. "Pillar banks" is a term I would love to see being done away with given that they are the pillars of nothing. To me, a pillar is something that holds something up. It is something strong that supports one. I am very glad to be able to support the Private Members' motion tonight and I thank the staff of Deputy Mattie McGrath's office who did a great deal of work to prepare it.
I move amendment No. 2:
To delete all the words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:"notes that:— significant progress has been made in reducing the level of mortgage arrears;calls on the Government to:
— Central Bank of Ireland statistics show that the number of primary dwelling mortgage accounts in arrears over 90 days has fallen from 98,700 in September 2013 to 44,000 at end December 2018;
— the level of these arrears has now declined for twenty one consecutive quarters, and the number of accounts in arrears over 720 days has declined for fourteen consecutive quarters;
— 111,500 mortgage accounts have also been restructured and 87 per cent of these accounts are deemed to be meeting the terms of their current restructure arrangements;
— the Government has advanced and supported a range of measures which have assisted borrowers experiencing genuine difficulty in meeting their mortgage or other commitments, and which have also maintained and increased the consumer protections available to borrowers whose loans have been sold;
— in particular, the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2015 ensured that the Central Bank of Ireland regulatory framework continued to be available to borrowers where loans were sold and the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2018 now provides that the legal owners of credit must be regulated by the Central Bank of Ireland;
— all regulated entities are legally obliged to comply with the Central Bank Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears 2013 and the Consumer Protection Code 2012, including the provisions of chapter 8 of the Consumer Protection Code;
— it is an independent matter for the Central Bank of Ireland to formulate the codes it makes pursuant to statute, and that the Bank has amended such codes as appropriate from time to time;
— in 2018 the Central Bank of Ireland undertook a review of the Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears specifically in the context of the sale of loans and it found that, where borrowers engage with the process, the Code of Conduct on Mortgage Arrears is working effectively and as intended;
— the Central Bank of Ireland is of the view that in the context of loan sales, the current regulatory framework provides sufficient protections to consumers;
— there is a requirement on businesses to comply with the terms of the European Union directive on unfair terms in consumer contracts as transposed into Irish law; and
— it is important to ensure that there continues to be a functioning, strong and sustainable banking and financial system which meets the needs of existing and new borrowers and the general public, consistent with a high level of consumer protection; and— support and, as necessary, work with the Central Bank of Ireland as it carries out its important financial stability and consumer protection functions;
— continue to support and assist households in mortgage arrears and, recognising the importance of the family home, to maintain arrangements which will enable households to restructure unsustainable debts in a fair manner;
— keep the financial services legislative and regulatory framework under review to ensure that the level of consumer protection continues to be up-to-date; and
— continue to pursue overall prudent fiscal and economic policies that will deliver high levels of employment and positive economic development."
I acknowledge the Deputies for placing the motion, which the Government will not be supporting, before the House. Before I outline why, I note that no one in the House, including those Deputies who have proposed the motion, has a monopoly on understanding the difficulty and anxiety citizens in mortgage difficulty can face. It is an anxiety I well understand and share. I understand the challenge our citizens face when they face mortgage difficulty. In particular, I note with regard to Deputy Michael Healy-Rae's reference to the Taoiseach that anyone who has the ability to be re-elected has more than enough stock of experience and appreciation of what constituents face. For the Deputy to suggest otherwise is unworthy of him. He also said nothing had been done, which Deputy Harty also stated. I will touch on that in a moment. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae also raised the issue of why I did not support a community banking organisation and the development of such banking beyond what is there. I reiterate to the Deputy what I said on the issue before. If anyone, including the Deputy himself, is willing to raise the money to fund the idea, I am happy to look at it. However, I am not in the business of reinvesting Irish taxpayers' money into activities to create lending when we still have billions of euro absorbed in banks which I want to get back. If those who are putting this idea forward think it is such a good one, they might be willing to put their own capital on the table to make it happen. When they do so, I will be happy to sit down and look at the idea again, as I have said I will do.
I will deal now with the points Deputy Harty made. I would have hoped for some acknowledgment from the Deputy of the progress which has been made. I am sorry he could not provide that this evening. Deputy Harty said the Government was failing. It is up to the people to determine whether we are failing.
I am used to the interruptions but I will continue on. I would have hoped for a broader appreciation from Deputy Harty of the facts in this context but he did not feel able to offer it on this occasion. Restating the anxiety and understanding, which I share with Deputy Harty, of the worry citizens face when dealing with arrears, I would have hoped to hear from the Deputy, whose contributions on other matters tend to be fair-minded, an acknowledgement, as acknowledged in the amendment to the motion, that the number of people in mortgage arrears has almost halved in the last number of years. Progress like that had been deemed impossible. That does not invalidate the worry and concern of those who are still in arrears. However, to suggest no progress has been made and that nothing has been done is not commensurate with the changes that have taken place in our economy and society. While I do not hold any hope in respect of Deputy Mattie McGrath, I would have hoped that Deputy Harty would at least have acknowledged the fact that 115,000 mortgage accounts had been restructured. That has happened because the Government and the House recognise the worry and need to respond to the personal crises faced by too many people. I would have hoped for at least some recognition that the level of arrears in Ireland has declined for 21 consecutive quarters. The fact that there is no such acknowledgment in either the motion or the speeches in support of it is the reason I have moved the amendment.
Before I deal with the issue of the purchase of loan books by equity funds, I will discuss what we have done. With the constructive input of the House, we have introduced personal insolvency legislation. We have established Abhaile, which has issued 10,000 vouchers to provide support for citizens in distress. Of those who have secured personal insolvency arrangements pursuant to the legislation, 95% have stayed in their homes. In addition, we have put in place other legislation, in particular the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2015, on the amendment of which I was happy to work with Deputy Michael McGrath who identified an issue I accepted needed to be addressed. We put two enactments in place, one of which was initiated by the Government and one of which was initiated by Deputy Michael McGrath, to ensure that any entity operating in Ireland with access to and ownership of our loan book is subject to the regulation of the Central Bank. Further, I asked the Central Bank to review the code of conduct on mortgage arrears to consider whether those whose loans were sold were treated differently to those whose loans continued to be held by banks. That review was carried out independently by the Central Bank which recommended that the code of conduct on mortgage arrears be left unchanged. Before the Oireachtas currently we have the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform (Amendment) Bill 2019, which was acknowledged by no one in this debate thus far. The whole purpose of the Bill is to ensure that the 2013 Act is amended and strengthened to strike the appropriate balance for citizens who are in great debt difficulty and distress in our courts. We have put the legislation in place to ensure the right balance is struck between those in difficulty and the broader obligations and needs of banks in how they manage themselves.
I am on the side of fairness and ensuring people are treated fairly. That includes those who have mortgages and those who need them. It includes those who are paying for them. I address a point Deputy Michael Healy-Rae identified when he asked why more credit was not available. I ask the Deputy whether he will acknowledge the possible link between the fact that we continue to have one of the highest levels of non-performing loans of any country in the European Union and the fact that there is still an appetite for more credit from our banks.
They are related. We are a country and we are an economy that has gone through a number of years of employment growth and income growth. A number of our banks still have a level of non-performing loans that is very high versus the European average. We went through many years in which Opposition speakers, I and many in this House criticised the fact that we either did not have an independent bank regulator or, if we did have one, that it did not have enough power, and if it did not have enough power, that it was not using it. That is now in place and that has consequences. One of the consequences of this is that our regulators, led by and represented by the Central Bank of Ireland, are saying that banks, particularly at a time of relative economic recovery and stability, need to do more to make sure that balance sheets are safe.
As Minister for Finance, I understand the need for that to happen but I also understand that those who are in difficulty, who are in distress and who find themselves facing grievous worry about their future because of the level of debt they have, need protection and to be treated fairly as well. The 2015 Act, the 2018 Act, the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2013, the current one that is being revised at the moment and the code of conduct on mortgage arrears have all contributed to a significant amount of mortgage restructuring to alleviate our citizens from difficulty.
I will continue to work with those who want to be constructive on this to see if there are ways in which we can continue to get that balance right. Those who are in difficulty need to be and must be treated fairly. We will look and I will continue to look at ways in which this could be done, but let us acknowledge what has happened, let us acknowledge the progress that has been made, and let us acknowledge that we need to find, in a fair way, ways to ensure that our banks can meet the needs of today and of tomorrow.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this Private Members' motion. I will be sharing my time with Deputy Brassil. At the outset, I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath and his colleagues from the Rural Independent Group for bringing this motion to the House tonight and for facilitating such an important debate because we are all fresh from the local and European elections and we are fresh from a lot of direct interaction on the doorsteps with constituents, and this is an issue. It is an issue how people are being treated, especially when their loans are sold. There is no doubt about that and there are real concerns. It is our job to assess whether those concerns are well founded, to seek to address them, to come forward with the right policy response, and to deal with that.
There are a number of points that I want to make on behalf of our party as part of this debate. First, there can be a characterisation at times that the loans that are sold to so called vulture funds, whether they be mortgages, farm loans or business loans, are basket cases and a lost cause, but that is not the case. Many of them are deep in arrears and in some cases no repayments have been made for many years, but in a great number of cases, these are inherently good loans. They are loans where the borrower is engaging, where in many cases restructuring agreements have been entered into and are being honoured by both the lender and the borrower. Despite this, the loans are still technically classified as non-performing on the balance sheet of the respective bank, in line with the technical definition of a non-performing loan as defined by the European Banking Authority. These banks are under pressure from Europe to reduce their level of non-performing loans and there is no doubt about that.
The question is, however, whether there is a better way of doing it. The Minister pointed to the undoubted success there has been in bringing down the overall level of arrears. Thankfully, the number and percentage of mortgages in particular that are in arrears has fallen, in line with the growth of the economy.
It is fair to say that while we all have many challenges engaging with banks on behalf of borrowers, in the vast majority of cases, where there is goodwill on both sides, where the borrower is making a genuine effort and where he or she is paying what he or she can, in most cases but not all, a deal can be done and an arrangement can be entered into at least to buy time and perhaps to enter into a split mortgage, to get forbearance through term extension, or to get an interest-only mortgage for a period. Whether that is always the case when public representatives are not involved is another matter and it is up to the Central Bank to assess the data and the evidence on that.
Good loans are being sold as well as loans that are not in such good shape. There are those who would argue that there is a better prospect of getting a deal from a vulture fund than from a financial institution. I have tried to deal with them as well as borrower representative bodies and my experience is that there is a prospect of getting a deal if one is prepared to lose and forfeit the ownership of one's property.
There may well be a deal to be done on an outstanding deficit in the loan account but one will lose one's home. I have not had success, and I am not aware of other groups having had success, in entering into new long-term restructuring arrangements with these loan owners or so called vulture funds. They are incredibly difficult to deal with and it is frustrating trying to get any feedback whatsoever.
One is dealing with an intermediary, namely, a credit servicing firm as a legacy of the regime that was there all along. It is simply a conduit. It is the messenger and it is passing the information back to the vulture fund and then the loan is one of a long list of loans that goes through its credit committee. There is no real engagement. One never gets to talk to a decision-maker. That is my experience. The same argument can be made for banks and their systems need to continue to be improved, but as I say, in many cases deals are being done in that scenario.
The other point, which we have discussed previously, is that at least the banks will come before these Houses in the form of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, and they will allow themselves to be held to account. They fill up very detailed questionnaires that we, as members of the committee, send to them in advance of their appearance before the committee. They are very detailed questions and, by and large, those questions are answered in the questionnaires. Then they come in and they have maybe a four, five or six-hour engagement with members of the committee, and the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy, will be well aware of this from when he was a member of that committee. They will answer those questions to a greater or lesser extent.
We get no such opportunity when it comes to these funds. We have tried time and again to get them in before the committee to talk about how they deal with these loans, their business plan, what type of restructuring options they are offering, and the approach that they adopt, and they simply refuse time and again to come in and have any discussion. If they come in, they will be given a fair hearing and they will be given an opportunity to answer questions and to set out from their perspective their approach to managing these loans. I always get suspicious when businesses such as that are afraid to be held accountable and will not allow themselves to come into a public forum and be questioned by publicly elected representatives. That is not on.
The people whom we represent are those who are making a genuine effort, people who are paying what they can for mortgages, people who are prioritising the retention of their home and who are doing their best to meet their commitments and face up to their responsibilities. The vast majority are. I have not seen any data backing up the suggestion that there are a huge number of so called strategic defaulters. I have no doubt there are some but they are a small minority. The vast majority of people want to keep their homes and they are paying what they can.
I have acknowledged the Government's support for the Fianna Fáil legislation, which the Minister referenced and which means these funds are regulated. That is an important step in the right direction. What we had up to that point was a halfway house, to my mind, whereby the agent, with whom all the borrower's contact was, was regulated but the fund making all of the key decisions on the future of that loan was not regulated by the Central Bank. The fact that they are now regulated is progress. I want that to be active regulation and I want to see the Central Bank going into the offices of these funds carrying out its inspections, doing its thematic work and assessing the compliance by these loan owners themselves directly, not their middlemen or agents, but these funds directly, with the various codes and with the legislation that they are obliged to honour.
On 18 April, representatives from FLAC and Mr. David Hall from the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation appeared before our committee to discuss Deputy Pearse Doherty's Private Members' Bill, which has been discussed in the House. In the context of the sale of loans to so-called vulture funds and the impact of that on borrowers, they raised some important issues the Minister needs to address. We followed up on a number of the issues with parliamentary questions. One issue raised by both bodies was that, in their view, the code of conduct on mortgage arrears is not a statutory code. The Minister, however, denies that. He has stated it is issued under the Central Bank Acts and that it is, therefore, a statutory code and that the Central Bank has enforcement powers for non-compliance with that code. Mr. Paul Joyce from FLAC, who is highly respected, made the point to the committee that while the code is issued under section 117 of the Central Bank Act 1999, it is neither primary nor secondary legislation and it has neither been passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas nor signed into law by the relevant Minister, who in this case would be the Minister for Finance.
He went on to refer to the decision of the Supreme Court in Irish Life and Permanent plc v. Dunne and Irish Life and Permanent plc v. Dunphy. He described them as seminal cases to test the enforceability of the arrangements entered into by lenders under the terms of the code. He said the Supreme Court stated the only measure in the code of conduct on mortgage arrears that was legally enforceable was the three-month moratorium on the bringing of proceedings against the borrower when the borrower had been exited from the mortgage arrears resolution process. He stated there was nothing else in the code the court could discover that was sufficiently precise and tangible to provide legally enforceable rights for borrowers. I have yet to see a full response to that from the Department of Finance but it should be forthcoming because FLAC has questioned the enforceability of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears in reference to the Supreme Court's judgment. We cannot allow any ambiguity or question mark over the enforceability and applicability of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears.
Another issue raised at the committee and which continues to arise relates to section 39 of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears. Under that section, lenders are required to explore all the options for alternative repayment arrangements offered by that lender and all the usual forbearance arrangements are listed from A to L. Lenders are required to explore all the options for an alternative repayment arrangement offered by that lender but they are not obliged to consider all the options. They can say they offer only A, B and C, or only F, G and H. I have seen many letters received from the funds in which it is stated a conclusion has been reached that the loan is not sustainable and that, therefore, the only solutions offered are voluntary sale, voluntary surrender or court proceedings. They should be required at least to consider all the options set out in the code of conduct on mortgage arrears but that is not the case. It is a deficit that should be addressed.
Other issues raised that need to be dealt with include the fact that thus far, despite all the Central Bank inspections of lenders in respect of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears, not a single sanction has been imposed by the Central Bank, even though it found a litany of issues and of breaches of the code by lenders. In a reply to a parliamentary question I tabled, the Minister stated no firm had been sanctioned for a breach of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears to date. I was suspicious when I heard from organisations such as FLAC that there was a question mark over the enforceability of the code. Despite the Central Bank finding issues with the approach of the lenders to the code during its inspections, not a single sanction has been imposed. That is a significant concern and it should be addressed.
We have heard time and again from the Minister and others that when a loan is sold, all the protections travel with the loan and the borrower is not disadvantaged in any way. They claim that if the borrower has entered into a restructuring arrangement with the seller of the loan, namely, the bank, that arrangement must be honoured by the new loan owner. FLAC made the point, however, that such a requirement is not written anywhere. It is not part of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears or part of any legislation. While it appears to be the case that restructuring arrangements continue to be honoured, that will be tested fully as time passes. Currently, there is no requirement in the code for new loan owners to honour an alternative arrangement. In a reply to a parliamentary question I tabled, the Minister stated: "The Central Bank expects that where a co-operating borrower is complying with the terms of an alternative repayment arrangement (ARA) and where the borrower’s circumstances have not changed, the terms of the ARA will continue to be honoured." The Central Bank expects but it cannot enforce. There is nothing the Central Bank can do if a fund purchases a loan and says it does not like that arrangement and that it will tear it up. That is a concern and it needs to be addressed.
Another important issue which arose at the committee was that representatives had found over time that the file relating to the loan, its origin and its full documentation was not being transferred to the purchaser. We queried the issue with the Minister, who replied, "I am advised by the Central Bank that while there is no specific provision in the Central Bank’s codes which requires that a full file be received by the loan purchaser from the original lender, the General Principles of the Central Bank’s Consumer Protection Code 2012 provide that 'a regulated entity must ensure that in all its dealings with customers and within the context of its authorisation it acts honestly, fairly and professionally in the best interests of its customers and the integrity of the market'". There is nothing written to provide that the full file must be transferred, but I would expect that to be a basic requirement that should be honoured.
I have used my speaking time to convey to the Minister that it is not as simple as saying that if a loan is sold, it will have no impact on the borrower. I have made three or four specific points which show that at a minimum, there is a question mark and ambiguity. The points need to be addressed because by not doing so, the Minister is potentially exposing borrowers to the types of risks my colleagues have highlighted.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. Fianna Fáil will support its principle and sentiment but will table some amendments to strengthen it.
We have all campaigned in recent months. In County Kerry, I campaigned in towns such as Tralee, Killarney and Killorglin, as well as in rural areas. I also did some campaigning in Dublin. As one goes along, one picks up on issues that educate one about what is actually going on rather than what we are told. For example, while canvassing I came across a couple who have a business with a few properties and who owed just over €1 million to the bank. They agreed a settlement with the bank and were selling off the properties to hold on to the business. They were paying 80% of what they owed, as agreed with the bank. Nothing happened for five or six weeks. They could not contact anybody or receive an answer to emails or phone calls. When they eventually succeeded, they were informed their properties were now part of a group of 450 other properties and were being sold to a fund, but that was the first they had heard of it. That is utterly unacceptable. We still own 71% of AIB, 14% of Bank of Ireland and 75% of Permanent TSB. However we wish to dress it up as politicians, the public expects us to exert some control and give some help to distressed mortgage holders.
They saw how we had bailed out the banks and now they are asking the Government to legislate for the banks to help them out. This is not unreasonable and it is not happening in isolation, as we are in the middle of a housing crisis. It is not as if all of these loans will not create another problem if they are sold on and the new vulture fund does not deal fairly with the people living in these houses. That is a real concern. I imagine the banks are under pressure from the European Union to sell the loans and get their loan books in order, but sometimes we just have to say no to the European Union. We have always been good enough Europeans, but do we choose citizens or being good Europeans? I say we should look after citizens.
I ask the Minister to consider two very practical measures. There are 63,000 mortgage accounts in arrears and until the housing crisis is resolved, bulk selling of these accounts to vulture funds should be prevented. The second consideration is developments being purchased in their entirety by investment funds. For example, a development of 50 houses may be bought in its entirety by a vulture fund. This means that a young couple who are trying to get into the property market are excluded from it. The fund then controls the properties and the rents charged, which adds to the developing housing crisis.
On Jersey people cannot buy a property if they are not from the island. That is probably extreme, but it is factual. As far as I understand, in New Zealand investment funds are not allowed to bulk-buy properties. We should be looking at measures such as this to support citizens and stop vulture funds from taking advantage of properties they can buy for half nothing to be moved on at a later stage to make profits for the investors. I am not interested in making profits for investors but in looking after citizens. We looked after the banks which should now help citizens out of the crisis.
The Minister said the people sitting opposite him did not have a monopoly of understanding the fears and anxieties of those with distressed mortgages or who found it difficult to pay very high mortgages. That may or may not be correct, but I do not believe the Government understands fully what is happening to the families concerns and their real fears and anxieties when vulture funds arrive on the scene. To understand them we must go back and understand the journey the people concerned went on and what happened to them. By and large, they are families who worked hard and bought homes before the economic crash. I will give the example of two working people who wanted to own their own home, were not looking for anything from the State, the Government or anybody else and bought a house. Most of those involved bought their house at the top end of the market before the crash. When the crash came, it was not their fault and the bottom fell out of the economy. The banks were exposed for their bad practices and went bust. What happened then? The State saved the banks; the National Pension Reserve Fund was cleaned out; we borrowed money from the troika and took taxpayers' money and put it into the banks that had acted so irresponsibly. The very same families who had bought their house at the top end of the market are the ones who are paying the price.
We found ourselves exposed with no money to invest in the economy. What did Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil do? What did the Green Party and the Labour Party do when they were in government supporting these parties? They took an axe to public services and cut welfare and social supports. People lost their jobs causing huge distress and anxiety for families. People had to leave the country. Families made sacrifices at the time, but they stuck it out and tried their best. There was a pick-up in the economy and perhaps one or both persons in a household with a mortgage found a job. They then entered into a long-term arrangement with a bank they trusted and with which they had taken out the mortgage. it was a bank they, their families and communities owned. Peoples' taxes, blood, sweat and tears went into supporting the banks, through no fault of their own. They trusted them. Families who were struggling, thought everything was okay and worried that a letter could be a bill that they might not have been able to afford received letters from the banks they owned stating their mortgages were being sold to a vulture fund. They have no way to stop this from happening as they have no ownership. There is real fear and anxiety, but the Government has no understanding of it. No matter what he says, I do not believe the Minister has such an understanding.
This is the deal. Families cannot do anything about the letters they receive. They are then told not to worry because all of the deals they entered into will be honoured and that there is nothing to see here, similar to what the Government stated about Bills brought forward by the Opposition to regulate and deal with vulture funds. There is no problem, until people receive a letter from a vulture fund stating it wants payment within 30 days. That is what is happening to so many families. What does the Government do? It does nothing. It allows the vulture funds to come in, circle and prey on the vulnerabilities of families and does nothing about it.
The Minister has challenged and put it up to me to propose alternatives. We brought forward a Bill to provide for no sale without consent. It was passed democratically in the House on Second Stage, which means nothing to the Government. We can vote in the House as a majority, but the Government, supported by Fianna Fáil, ignores the majority and nothing is done. We brought forward the Bill to regulate vulture funds and make sure families would have a say and have to give their consent before their mortgages were sold.
There are alternatives, including the Bill proposed by Deputy Pearse Doherty. Who are the people who are trying to block these alternatives? They include Fianna Fáil , Fine Gael and the European Central Bank. Mr. Draghi came before an Oireachtas committee to tell people the Bill could not be delivered or supported. The Minister for Finance and previous Ministers said nothing could be done, but the people who are really concerned about this issue, whose mortgages are being sold from under their noses, are under real pressure.
I again remind the Minister that some of the vulture funds hire mercenaries to forcibly remove people from their homes. We have seen this happen in some parts of the country. When the Minister accuses members of the Opposition of pretending that they have a monopoly of compassion for the families concerned, the reason he does so is he knows that, in fact, it is the truth. If if he had compassion and really understood their fears and anxieties, he would do something about the unregulated nature of how vulture funds come into the country. Many of them are shelf companies, with hundreds of subsidiaries hiding behind other names. Nobody knows who they are, but one thing for sure is they are not here to act in the interests of the people. They are not here to act in the interests of those who bailed out the pillar banks. They are not here to keep people in their homes and they are not here to support hard-working families or to help those in mortgage distress; rather, they are here to make money on the back of people's misery. I am afraid the Minister's contribution was underwhelming and shameful because he did not acknowledge the suffering and anxiety of the individuals in question.
Sinn Féin will be supporting the motion. Through our finance spokesperson, Deputy Pearse Doherty, we will continue our work to have the No Consent, No Sale Bill 2019 passed. We will continue to provide the alternatives. If the Minister is not prepared to listen or to implement the alternatives, that is on him, the Fine Gael Party and the Government. The Minister needs to do an awful lot more. He needs to understand that this issue is real and he also needs to understand the reason the vulture funds are here. I think the Minister does understand. Fine Gael represents the cosseted privileged class who will always put the interests of vulture funds, banks, landlords, speculators and people who want to make huge amounts of money on the backs of other people ahead of the interests of people who simply want a roof over their head. That is all people want: a roof over their head. People work hard to have a roof over their head. When things go wrong, they expect some level of support, but of course it is not there. The Government will not support the people who need to be helped when they are in crisis but it will support the vulture funds, the banks and landlords. That is what this Government has done. The Minister should not pretend there is no alternative or that the Sinn Féin does not care or understand. Sinn Féin does care. The Minister understands but he does not care and the Government does not care. If it did, it would do something about it.
Vulture funds have fast become a normal feature in the economy since the Government came to power. Distressed mortgages are now regarded as a new commodity, bundled up in a new financial product to be offered as fresh pickings for vulture funds making their way through the economy at the invitation of the Government. Fine Gael continues to open up the market to include a wider net of homeowners vulnerable to vulture fund takeovers, which may be at the behest of the European Central Bank or the Irish Central Bank.
A new low has been reached. The Government and those with vested interests in the sector have been doing their best to make it out that vulture funds are a sign of a healthy functioning economy. So much spin has been spun that when the Central Bank's report on the credit servicing funds was published before Christmas, the Government and key players in the industry, including the Central Bank itself, used the report to speak positively about vulture funds and the contribution that they make. They made out that vulture funds were not only good for the economy but that they were in fact better than banks for those with distressed mortgages. We have heard in all of the contributions tonight how much they better are. Either banks in this country have reached a new low or spin has reached a new height. Either way, we are in sorry times if we are hearing that vulture funds are better than banks. Let us face it, the existence of vulture funds in our economy is a symptom of a complacent Government prioritising private sector interests over the interests of ordinary people in this country. It is also a symptom of a banking system collapse, a system that has failed to provide a service to its people. Banks, through incompetence and the prioritisation of a select few, have developed a situation where vulture funds could easily move in. The recession was used by the banks to transfer the responsibility of loans to another entity, one beyond the radar of Central Bank regulations. This was no doubt done on purpose because it suits the Government to shift the responsibility for financial hang-ups from the recession onto another entity. For that reason, those of us in opposition who have defended the rights of homeowners have consistently called for greater regulation of the credit financing firms.
I agree with the call of this Private Members' motion that the Government accept the conclusion reached by FLAC that there is a significant inequality of arms between the lender and the borrower in that the borrower may have no meaningful influence on the content of the terms of a loan and may be wholly unaware that the lender is reserving the right to sell the loan on to an entity of its choice. I also agree that the Central Bank of Ireland's report on the effectiveness of the code of conduct on mortgage arrears in the context of the sale of loans by regulated lenders, which was furnished to the Minister for Finance in February in 2018, should be given legislative force to ensure that all parts of the code are expressly admissible in repossession hearings. One has to wonder why this has not been done already. It must surely be to give the banks the leeway to do what they are doing.
The Government must recognise that so-called vulture funds pose an immediate and overwhelming threat to borrowers in rural and urban Ireland and it must accept that unregulated entities have demonstrated a clear unwillingness to abide by voluntary codes of conduct. We need to revise the code of conduct on mortgage arrears to ensure that provisions 38 and 39 mandatorily require lenders to provide solutions. Most important, we need to recognise housing as a right and as part of economic, social and cultural rights. In this way, the right to a home can be defended at this juncture and into the courts, if required. Currently, the banks have a greater right to homes than people. That is the crux of the problem and that is what has to change in our society. The issue of bailouts was mentioned earlier. The Portuguese respect the right to housing in their constitution and they also respect the economic, social and cultural rights of their citizens. For that reason, the troika could not attack homes in Portugal because they were constitutionally protected. We do not have that provision here. The troika attacked our homes and we are still living through the crisis.
It saddens me greatly that the Rural Independent Group and I had to raise a motion regarding vulture funds in this House. Since the crash many homeowners, farmers, fishermen and business owners have worked very hard to keep afloat. Our State supported the banking sector in a big way. Now, some of the banks that we supported are dealing ruthlessly with their customers. Many loans are being sold at large reductions to foreign banks. Let us call them what they are, namely, vulture companies. These loans are acquired as cheaply as possible by the vulture companies, often at close to half the value of the original loan. The vulture companies then pursue the borrower for the full amount even though they have bought the loan at a hugely reduced rate. We have often seen these vulture companies pursue the borrower through the courts for the full amount and the evictions that resulted. Many homeowners, farmers, fishermen and business people give in under the pressure to these vulture funds and they surrender their property quietly out of public view because of the perceived shame and pressure. These cases do not hit the papers or media, but they are happening wholesale. The distress these people suffer is severe and the pressure they are under is unreal. Many people's health is affected. There is no doubt that this has led to many suicides throughout the country.
Families are paying a huge price. The Government has done a Pontius Pilate and washed its hands of this situation. It has allowed the banks to throw borrowers to the wolves. Banks and vulture funds are trampling on people, treating them in an appalling manner. Vulture funds are making a killing on the backs of hard-working, honest, Irish people. The banks tell us they are selling the loans of those people who are not engaging or co-operating to resolve the situation. We are told that it is only loans that are in default for more than two years that are being sold, but we are hearing a different story. People who were engaging with the banks and agreeing to a restructuring of their loans and had the capacity to meet their commitments suddenly were told that the bank was in the process of selling their loans to the vulture funds.
What has happened in this country since April last is nothing short of criminal. A bank that was rescued by the taxpayer is now selling the loans of farmers and business people throughout the country and mortgages to vulture funds at knock-down rates. They have been told that contracts were already signed with the vulture funds. The distress that this has caused is unimaginable. People are at risk of losing their homes, farms or businesses. The lives of many people are being destroyed by the heavy-handed and reckless behaviour of our banks.
The Government does not seem to care. It is allowing the banks to do what they like. In the case of Allied Irish Banks, AIB, the State owns over 70% of the bank. What steps have been taken to protect ordinary people from the ruthless actions of this bank? The Government is not in touch with ordinary people. This has to change. I propose that the banks should engage in a meaningful and realistic way with borrowers and be prepared to restructure their loans and give them the support to work their way out of their difficulties over time. Where the banks feel they are justified in selling these loans to the foreign banks or what we call vulture funds at knock-down rates, the borrower should be given an opportunity to purchase the loan at the same price as it is being offered to the vulture funds. Before a contract is entered into to sell these loans, the borrower should be informed well in advance. It is not good enough to inform the borrower that the contract to sell the loan has already been signed.
We cannot forget there are people and families behind these loans. Lives are being damaged and destroyed as a result. The banks and the Government must take a different approach.
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this important matter. I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath for doing so much work in the background to get this Private Members' business up and running. I regret the sarcastic attack that the Minister made on us because we are raising this issue. He says that we do not have a monopoly, which we do not. We have an understanding and the Government does not. We are asking the Government to deal with the matter where vulture funds are profiting from vulnerable people. We know what is happening. It is a traumatic time for a family to lose their home and to have to leave. Other things could be done to prevent that. The Government is giving money to local authorities to buy houses and compete against first-time buyers on the open market instead of building houses. The Government could do different things. It could buy these houses, give the funds to the local authorities, and rent the houses back to the families. In time, maybe they could get on their feet again and go from renting to getting a loan and buying back the house. They would remain in their home. It would mean that small children could stay in their own little bedrooms and sitting rooms, and they could keep using the kitchen and the fridge that they were used to.
Small businesses, farmers and people who survived the crash and who paid employees are still going to the wall because lenders will not even talk to the people who are in trouble. The next thing that happens is that the vultures sell off their properties and leave them behind. It cannot be right for the borrower to be overruled after going into a contract with a certain lender, bank or mortgage company. They overrule it and give the poor borrower no say about what it is doing. We know what vultures are on a farm. They are great crows that come and pick the eyes out of a lamb or a calf. I have seen it myself. They are left to die. I know what we are talking about when we talk about vulture funds. I appreciate people who employ others, as Deputy Michael Healy-Rae said, because I employ people. I do not know if the Minister understands it, since I do not know what his background is, but I certainly know that Friday evening comes very quickly if one has 20, 40 or 60 men to pay. If a payment does not come in, things can start to go wrong very quickly. Even after all the years of building up something, one can start to get into trouble. People need a bit of time. As Deputy Brassil said, these institutions will not even answer calls and talk to people, which is wrong.
I read a sign in front of a pub in Killarney stating that a bank is an institution that will lend money if a person does not need it or has money. We saw that when farmers were supposed to get cheap loans. The Government made a big announcement about farmers getting loans to deal with the fodder shortage. I know what happened. If someone was a short way into the red, that person got no loan. Only the fellows who did not need them got the loans. That is wrong but it is the truth.
I am hurt by the sarcastic way in which the Minister attacked us for tabling this motion. We may not have a monopoly and I agree with him on that, but we have an understanding and know that people are hurt. This is wrong. The Minister and the Government have the power to stop this.
The Deputies can take offence if they wish but it is a compliment to Deputy Harty rather than an insult to the rest of them.
I have put the Government's performance on the record previously and wish people would accept it. In 2009, action 1 was the introduction of the statutory CCMA. As action 2, in 2012, the mortgage-to-rent scheme was introduced. As action 3, in 2012, the Personal Insolvency Act was introduced, which reformed the bankruptcy system. Action 4 in 2012 was the introduction of a mortgage information and advice scheme by the Department of Social Protection. Action 5 in 2013 was the revision of the code of conduct, making a distinction between co-operating and non co-operating borrowers and provided that a moratorium of the last eight months would be available to co-operating borrowers. Action 6 was the establishment of the Insolvency Service of Ireland, ISI, by the 2012 Act. Action 7 in October 2014 involved the ISI waiving existing application fees for the three statutory debt relief solutions in an effort to remove any possible perceived barrier to debtors availing of solutions. Action 8 in 2015 was the enactment of the Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act. In 2015, we reduced the period for which people would be allowed to be insolvent under the Personal Insolvency Act, as action 9. Action 10 was the enactment of the Personal Insolvency (Amendment) Act 2015, to allow courts, where they considered it reasonable in the circumstances of an individual case, to approve a personal insolvency arrangement, PIA. Action 11 in 2016 was the introduction of the Abhaile scheme.
Action 12 from 2017 to 2019 is the finalisation by the Department of Justice and Equality of the review of operation of Part 3 of the Personal Insolvency Act to reduce the period in which bankruptcy applies to people to one year. For action 13, the Central Bank reviewed the CCMA, which found that it was working effectively for those who engaged with the process. As action 14, the Government supported Deputy Michael McGrath's Private Members' Bill - Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2018 - which has been enacted. Under action 15, the Government is supporting the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform (Amendment) Bill 2019, which is now on Committee Stage, and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, referred it. Action 16 is the Central Bank's consumer protection code. The CCMA makes specific provisions for those in mortgage arrears in their homes. Section 48 of the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Act 2013 relates to lending to small and medium enterprises. Under action 18, in individual cases where a regulated entity does not behave properly, the consumer has a right to make a complaint to the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman. Last year, we also expanded in the same Act on long-term financial services. There have been 19 actions in nine years.
As I said to Deputy Harty, I consider him a fair-minded person. None of that was mentioned in his contribution. There are very few jurisdictions where there are more protections for people, their property and their loan, and if their loan is bundled and packaged and sold to others. Most fair-minded people would accept that not just this Government and the parties in it, but the previous Fine Gael and Labour Government and the Administration prior to that of Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and some Independents have put in place structures in the past decade to protect people in their homes. However, not everybody can be protected on all occasions. On some occasions there are loans that are not sustainable. To deal with those people, what we have done is brought the bankruptcy period down to one year from 12 years. Previously, the Victorian notion of shame was attached to being bankrupt, which lasted for 12 years, and that was specified in the legislation that was in this House for more than 100 years. We did that to protect people and, as Deputy Danny Healy-Rae said, to allow children to stay in their own beds in their own homes, as best we can. However, we cannot protect everybody all of the time, but no jurisdiction anywhere does that. Properties are not free. Somebody pays for the land. Somebody pays for a house and at some stage somebody has to pay for the construction and for the property.
I will touch on a number of other issues that were raised in the brief time available. Deputy Brassil highlighted New Zealand and Jersey. Neither jurisdiction is part of the European Union. An Irish person can go to Spain and buy a house. That is the law. That is one of the four freedoms that being much debated across the water in the UK. All 28 countries in the European Union currently are still entitled to do that. Capital can move and people can purchase properties. The protection of the purchase of a property from a citizen of the country is a matter for each individual country if it chooses to do so, if it is outside of the European Union.
In response to what Deputy Cullinane said, I am always amused by Sinn Féin. The Deputies over there said we got an answer last week; for their information, we did get an answer, we got 20 extra county council seats. Sinn Féin lost county council seats. That is a point of fact for people to understand.
-----there were parties and individuals who were trying to trip us up every step of the way and vote against everything, including Deputy Mattie McGrath. I refer to the blinding negativity that they express on all occasions, every time they get to their feet. It is the same ignorant speech that shows they do not understand what is happening.
-----but we do not always get it all wrong. Every economy is attached to employment figures and when one gets employment right, the economy flows and it has flowed to a point where we have grown and grown. I cannot recall the number of quarters of consecutive growth we have had. That is what we have done for the people of Ireland who are back to work and who have the dignity of work. The Deputies over there who are less fair minded than Deputy Harty have no understanding of that. They stand up and speak with the same blinding, horrible negativity time after time. It is the same speech but a different subject of debate.
Deputy Michael Collins spoke about evictions. The Irish psyche is scarred by evictions. It is part of our history. That is why we introduced all of those actions to try to prevent evictions. It is not what we want. It is the last space that we want anybody to be in. The State purchases more properties than anybody else. Much has been said about vulture funds buying apartment blocks and parcels of land but the State is the largest purchaser. We do that to improve the social housing stock. Last year we purchased 8,500 units, which is a significant number of purchases, so as to allow people to have the dignity of a home they can live in where their children can have consistent education in moving from primary school to secondary school and, hopefully, to college.
I am an employer but I do not see the correlation between that and what has been said about us over here not understanding. I do not know if the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has ever employed anybody, but I know that he and the Taoiseach have more understanding than any of the Deputies opposite will ever have because they are fair minded like Deputy Harty. The other Deputies are not fair minded. It is the same bile, same venom and same nastiness on all occasions but a different speech.
My goodness. I never saw the like of this in my life. The failure and inaction of the Ministers present is appalling. We write our own speeches. We are not reading scripts churned out by the Government's spin machine, which we have every day of the week.
I acknowledge all those who spoke this evening in support of the motion. Where are all the Minister and Minister of State's backbenchers? Where are the Labour Party Members and the Sinn Féin Members? There are only a few of us in the Chamber and people are suffering distress and trauma. That is the way the Government has it. The Ministers' colleagues are all licking their wounds after the local and European elections.
I acknowledge also the great work that is done by the Free Legal Advice Centres, FLAC, regarding this matter. This is a timely and important motion that should generate significant cross-party support. For us as rural Deputies, it is a source of significant alarm that farmers and businesses who for years have been operating in good standing with their banks are now being pursued through no fault of their own. It is shameful. This takes me to the heart of why we introduced the motion. As we have noted this evening, the most recent statistical mortgage arrears report from the Central Bank, which the Minister did not quote, to the end of the final quarter of 2018, concerning principal dwelling houses, shows that the significant majority of approximately 14,000 loans acquired by unregulated loan owners in the course of that quarter are performing restructures. The Ministers did not mention that at all. They used the statistics that suited them.
I will take no indignation from the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. He said he understands it, but we do not understand it at all. Surely, if he understands it, that means he is complicit in wrongdoing. We know he is complicit in wrongdoing because we saw the bailiffs, the mercenaries, come in from Northern Ireland. We saw the way they kicked out the family in Balbriggan. We saw what happened down in Roscommon and in many other places and the Minister just stood idly by. There were no prosecutions. The Minister was complicit and stood idly by.
The Deputy is simply not in a position to stand up and lay at my feet the decision that the Garda makes or the Director of Public Prosecutions makes not to prosecute. That is not a charge he can make.
Despite that, people hold the belief that if they simply act in good faith and try their level best the regulatory powers in the State will protect them, but that has not been happening. That is not the experience of so many thousands of families right across the country. Then the Minister tries to lecture us on bringing forward a well-researched motion. The figures are there if he wants to quote them but he does not. I was only in court this morning to witness the shameful treatment in the Four Courts by a major bank, AIB. It is pure disgusting that we put money into it. I voted to save it. That was the biggest political mistake I ever made in my life. I said that countless times here. Our grandchildren will be paying for it. What did we do? We gave it the right to treat people like dirt. That is what is happening. In fact, what is going on in this State is very much like the old Roman circus, where the innocent were thrown to the lions for the amusement and the profit of the elite. It is disgusting. A previous Minister and Taoiseach said vulture funds were good.
Deputy Danny Healy-Rae reminded us of what vultures are; anyone farming or living in the country knows what these funds do. I will not repeat what the Deputy said.
If the Minister believes that is an overstatement then I encourage him to spend a week or even a day with any of these families and let him see what it is like to see one's entire life’s work being eaten away from the inside by vicious and heartless vultures. It is like a corrosive rust; it is sick and vile. It was suggested that we were vile; we are just telling the truth. We are Teachtaí Dála, messengers of the people. The Minister forgets that. We are bringing the message to the Parliament, even though it is empty and although the Government is smug, laughing and sneering at us. The electorate will have the final say.
Our motion is clear. We are calling on the Government to accept the principle of the conclusions reached by FLAC that there is a significant inequality of arms between the lender and the borrower, where the borrower may have no meaningful influence on the content of the terms of the loan and may be wholly unaware that the lender is reserving the right to sell the loan on to an entity of its choice. That is deceit, plain and simple, and should be called nothing else. It is a profoundly stark and brutally honest assessment of where we are. The power of the lender and the power of the borrower are in no way fair or proportionate. The vultures and other regulated and unregulated entities have absolutely no fear whatsoever of the Central Bank’s code of conduct on mortgage arrears. I have said here numerous times; the regulators are toothless, useless, and fruitless. It is like rubbing margarine or butter into a fat sow's behind. That is what is being done. They are laughing all the way to the bank. The vultures are totally unregulated entities and have absolutely no fear of the Central Bank's code of conduct. The Minister might as well write to Santa Claus, or whistle "Dixie".
As our motion noted, a report on this was furnished to the Minister for Finance in 2018. I accept that this element of our motion needed to be clearer, and I thank Deputy Pearse Doherty for raising the point. We have no monopoly on knowledge and do not claim to have but nor do we have the resources the Government has either. To be specific, we ask that the provisions of the code of conduct be given legislative force to ensure that all parts of the code are expressly admissible in repossession hearings. This would have the effect of greatly diminishing the imbalance of power between borrower and lender, which is what is really at the heart of the difficulty here. Anyone who wants to see that can see it. We broadly agree with FLAC’s conclusions that not all elements of the report are acceptable or desirable. Given the context and detail of the motion, what we meant is clear even if I accept that it could have been phrased to enable more clarity on the matter. Other speakers mentioned the request of the motion calling on the Government to recognise that so-called vulture funds pose an immediate and overwhelming threat to borrowers in rural and urban Ireland and to accept that unregulated entities have demonstrated a clear unwillingness to abide by voluntary codes of conduct. Deputy Michael McGrath made that quite clear. The vulture funds refused to come before the Oireachtas committee on finance. The Minister refuses to put it into legislation that those funds must appear before that committee. The Minister accepted that the banks will appear before the committee to answer questions and do their best and to face the music. The funds, however, have a carte blancheand are above all of that. They do the dirty work, like the invaders in our country before we got our own democracy, and the Government lets them off with impunity.
These points should not be open to negotiation given how clear-cut they are. The funds must be regulated and be made accountable to this House. We are accountable to the people, as is the Government. We do not live in a dictatorship, although sometimes one would wonder. As we have pointed out already, this motion must be seen in the context of what has happened with respect to the sale of mortgage loan books. I refer specifically to the decision by Allied Irish Banks to sell a significant volume of non-performing-to-let loans to Cerberus, involving buy-to-let loans with an approximate value of €1 billion involving at least 2,200 customers. Some people do not even know that this has happened. Does the Minister care about those people? They have been thrown to the wolves, like the Romans did. This is to say nothing of the fact that the decision by AIB was preceded by the sale of 6,139 loans linked to family homes by Permanent TSB, despite such accounts meeting the terms of their agreed arrangements. What is the point in acting in good faith? People might have agreements on restructuring and is meeting those agreements but the whole thing can be cleared like snow off a ditch when the sun comes out. It is totally disgraceful and reprehensible. We must ask ourselves the following important question, namely, if the banks are only too willing to sell of both performing and non-performing loans, then what is the point in engaging with them at all? Why should people bother being responsible when both those who are reckless and those who are acting in good faith are being thrown to the wolves? I am asking the Minister to accept that we have both a real and an emerging problem with this in our State. Communities and families are living in absolute dread of receiving notification that their loans are being sold on. They simply do not have confidence in the regulatory powers to protect their interests. That needs to change and it needs to change quickly.However, the Minister's attitude here tonight has been to dismiss the Rural Independent Group. He has shown his annoyance with us for putting down this motion, as much as to say we thought we had a monopoly. We never claimed that. The Minister does not seem to have any interest in this whatsoever. The Government seems to be in bed with the banks and the vultures. They can do what they like. They are supported, and are given carte blanche. What about the people who pay their hard taxes and who have worked might and main to build up their businesses and to pay their mortgages? This is the treatment they get. They are being let down by this Government.
The Government has refused a Sinn Féin Bill and a Fianna Fáil Bill. It now appears totally opposed to this motion we have brought forward, which is common sense. It is reflective of the situation and it must be accepted by the Government. The Government is a minority government. We were told there would be new politics. This is not new politics; it is dictatorship. Moreover, Members should look around the Chamber tonight. Is mór an trua an rud seo nach bhfuil éinne anseo. The Labour Party: cad a dhéanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Tá na Teachtaí ón Lucht Oibre imithe. Where are all the heroes, my colleagues from the hard left? I compliment any Deputy from the House who stood for election to the European Parliament; some of whom have been successful. I wish them all well, including those who were unsuccessful. However, this is shameful. This is such an important issue. I am surprised the Minister for Finance stayed tonight, and I thank him for that. It is seldom he stays; he has no interest in the backbenches. His party is the party of the big people, of those who live up twisting avenues, up the boreen lined with trees and the daffodils growing. It represents the elite, the rich, and to hell with ordinary people. It is a sad day for Ireland when that is the interest Members have. This is not new politics; it is dictatorship. The Government is beholden to the banks and the vulture funds. There is also a situation regarding the funding of political parties. We know what is going on. The process is supposed to be transparent and totally democratic. It is codswallop.
Fine Gael is the party of the landed gentry and big business. There are many cranes in Dublin, but nothing is going on in the rest of the country because AIB and many other banks are closed for business. They are not lending and they are not supporting the economy. They are refusing to support loyal customers they had for decades. A businessman in my parish contacted me recently. He only found out, when he rang his bank, that his loan had been sold on. He had been with the bank for 35 years, and his father had been with the same bank for 30 years before that. He was a good employer, and that is the kind of respect being shown. The Government wants to grow the economy but it is being grown with foreign direct investment and slave labour and labour camps. Think of Turas Nua, which the Government has been forced to abandon. I implore the Minister to reflect on what we have to offer and listen to us. We are elected by the people, as the Minister is. Deputy Harty was more reflective on the situation than we are. He is an excellent Deputy who does his best, and just because he does not blindly support the Government, the Minister stiffly criticised him. When we bring forward a motion and research it, as we are entitled to do, it must be listened to with respect, not with indignation.
I am loath to enter into a debate but I will say this to the Deputy. The motion tabled by the Deputies is a very important motion but there is nobody in this House who is not concerned about the issues they have raised. As I see it, everyone is committed to trying to find a solution. We have different approaches, perhaps. A very valid point was raised about the lack of participation in debates on important issues. However, the Minister for Finance does not deserve to be criticised because he has been here in respect of every debate that is relevant to his portfolio, as has been his Minister of State.
There are 158 Deputies in this House. Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. We are all committed to finding a solution. We should try to build collegiality and find a way forward. I should not have got into all of that.