Thursday, 18 February 2021
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Tá scéal ann inniu go bhfuil sé le fógairt ag NatWest amárach nach mbeidh Ulster Bank ag trádáil níos mó sa mhargadh ina dhiaidh dó a bheith anseo ar feadh 160 bliain. Drochscéal a bheas ann d’oibrithe, don phobal, do ghnáthchustaiméirí agus don gheilleagar ar fud an Stáit. Tá Ulster Bank ar cheann de na hiasachtóirí is mó do mhorgáistí agus do chomhlachtaí beaga agus measartha sa Stát seo. Gan an banc, tá baol ann go mbeidh ardú ar rátaí úis agus go dtiocfaidh lagú ar an ngeilleagar. Má tá deireadh ag teacht le Ulster Bank sa Stát seo caithfimid cinnte a dhéanamh nach dtitfidh iasachtaí isteach i lámha na gcreach-chistí.
Tomorrow, NatWest will announce the future of Ulster Bank in this State. It has been reported that Ulster Bank is set to leave the market after more than 160 years. If that is to pass, it would be a major hammer blow for workers, communities, mortgage holders and small businesses. Ulster Bank plays a key role in our communities, providing jobs for more than 2,400 people across the State and with 88 branches serving very important communities and more than 1 million customers. It is a major player in our banking sector, responsible for 20% of all SME lending and with a 15% share in the mortgage market. In 2019 alone, it provided €3.1 billion of new lending into our economy. The Deputy Governor of the Central Bank wrote to me back in September and said that the Irish banking sector is already heavily concentrated, with five banks accounting for the majority of mortgage lending and only three banks accounting for the majority of SME lending. Ulster Bank is one of them. The Deputy Governor continued: "Ulster Bank's exit from the market could contribute to an upward pressure on interest rates and weaker credit availability." That is the reality before us.
There has been speculation for months that Cerberus, one of the most aggressive vulture funds in this State, is circling Ulster Bank's entire €20.5 billion loan book. This would be an unacceptable outcome for homeowners and borrowers and it must be avoided at all costs. I have always said that the best scenario is that Ulster Bank remains a part of our banking sector. I hope that is what will come to pass tomorrow. However, if it comes to pass that NatWest announces Ulster Bank's withdrawal, given its impact on the banking sector, communities, borrowers and, indeed, the economy, there is a responsibility on the Government to act to ensure that all that can be done is done to minimise the damage that would be caused. We could have a €20.5 billion loan book on the line. We cannot allow vulture funds with no interest in our communities, businesses or economy to rip up that loan book.
The State remains a key player in the Irish banking sector, with a 14% stake in Bank of Ireland and a majority shareholding in both AIB and Permanent TSB. The Government must now look at how those pillar banks and Permanent TSB could play a lead role, if the worst comes to pass tomorrow, by offering some degree of security to mortgage holders, businesses, personal customers and workers. Has the Tánaiste spoken to either of the pillar banks or Permanent TSB to track a path forward in the interest of Ulster Bank staff and customers? Does he agree that now is the time to create a third force in the banking sector to challenge AIB and Bank of Ireland? On my request, the finance committee wrote to the Minister for Finance and the Central Bank a number of weeks ago requesting that they take an active role in responding to the possible withdrawal of Ulster Bank from the market? Will the Tánaiste commit to that today?
I thank the Deputy. I am aware of the media reports in regard to the future of Ulster Bank in the Republic of Ireland. This is, as everyone in the House will appreciate, a commercial matter for its owner, NatWest. It will not be a Government decision, nor does it require Government approval. However, it is a matter of real concern and one that the Government is taking very seriously. It is a matter of real concern to Ulster Bank's customers, staff and the communities it serves.
The Minister for Finance has been in close contact with Ulster Bank and its parent, NatWest, in recent days and, indeed, in recent months, and he has kept me informed of developments. He is assessing all options with a view to protecting customers, minimising job losses and avoiding compulsory redundancies where possible, and also reducing the negative impact there could be on competition for banking services in Ireland. It is important to say that in any scenario, people's deposits and savings are fully protected and can be transferred to another bank. Two months' notice must be given to customers of any change or development such as this. When it comes to mortgages and loans, the terms and conditions will remain unchanged and EU consumer protections continue to apply.
In regard to the suggestion that we try to develop a third force in our banking sector that would be able to compete with Bank of Ireland and AIB, this is something that I and the Government support. If it is possible to develop a solution on those lines, that is something we are exploring and want to explore.
I thank the Tánaiste. We recognise that there are protections there, including for mortgage holders. However, if these loans fall into the hands of vulture funds, there could, upon review of those mortgages, be significant consequences for borrowers. I also recognise that this is a decision for NatWest and that it is outside the control of Government. However, if the decision is taken tomorrow, which seems to be the direction of travel that this has been on for quite a period of time, there is a responsibility on Government to act, as the Tánaiste says, to protect borrowers, customers and staff, protect the footprint of our banking sector and also protect competition within the sector.
I ask the Tánaiste to ensure that, after tomorrow's decision, there is an immediate engagement with the finance committee and Opposition spokespersons and that the Government lay before us an options paper as to how we can utilise our majority State-owned shareholding in our banks to try to achieve the objectives which I think everybody in the House shares, namely, to protect customers, business owners, mortgage holders, staff and our banking sector.
I thank the Deputy. I will be speaking to the Minister for Finance about this again today. I am sure he will be willing to engage with Opposition spokespeople and members of the committee on this issue as things develop. I will take that up with him later but I am sure he will be happy to brief spokespeople and engage with the committee.
As the Deputy knows, the Minister has already engaged with representatives from both Ulster Bank and NatWest in recent months. He also met with the Financial Services Union last December, as did I in recent months. When he met with representatives of Ulster Bank last October, he emphasised that he expected that staff representatives would be consulted and kept informed of any developments throughout the review process. I am concerned about the impact that ongoing media speculation is having on staff and customers of the bank. As the Deputy knows, customers, staff and the Central Bank must be informed promptly of any decisions that are made.
On the question of whether other banks in which the State has a shareholding have an interest in elements of Ulster Bank, while I appreciate that this is a pertinent question, I cannot comment on speculation about that as it would be inappropriate to do so for reasons of Stock Exchange market abuse rules. The Central Bank has clear requirements that apply when firms cease operations or transfer operations to another entity. Customers must be informed about those decisions and given at least two months' notice to move to alternative providers. If their loans are transferred, they must be given full details of the arrangements. All mortgages or loans which are sold or assigned to a new creditor will continue to be subject to the terms of the contract entered into by the borrower. If a loan is sold, the relevant Irish and EU consumer protections continue to apply.
I used to believe the Departments of Justice and Health were the most dysfunctional in government for a number of years but the Department of Education has come up on the outside and taken that mantle. This is because of last year's fiasco involving indecisiveness over cancelling the leaving certificate examinations and the debacle over predicted grades. The latter involved school profiles, which had to be removed. The Minister had to apologise to 6,500 students for incorrect grading. The Minister then promised a review of the leaving certificate examinations of 2020. We are still waiting for it. Not even six weeks into 2021, we have had no fewer than three announcements about schools reopening that had to be withdrawn. These were on 7 January, 26 January and earlier this week before the Cabinet. We welcome the fact the Government has taken on board the Labour Party's call for clarity and choice for leaving certificate students but there are still question marks over certainty because of public health advice.
I want to raise a number of issues. Over the next six weeks, students will have to decide whether to sit oral and practical examinations despite great uncertainty over schools reopening. Some people, including those in the unions, are quite rightly asking why, if oral and practical examinations are going ahead, all students cannot do them regardless of whether they are going down the traditional leaving certificate route or the calculated grades route. This type of external assessment would give both teachers and students peace of mind. We in the Labour Party ask the Tánaiste to consider this as a constructive option.
I want to ask the Tánaiste a very specific question about the leaving certificate examinations and the reopening of schools. Given yesterday's announcement regarding the leaving certificate, has the plan been Tony Holohan and NPHET proofed? It is a very simple question. Given the kite-flying and the commentary by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at parliamentary party meetings regarding the reopening of schools, and considering that the meeting of the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid is to be held only this evening, is there any chance that any of what is proposed could be torpedoed because of the Chief Medical Officer and NPHET doing their jobs and giving advice? I am aware that Ministers, including the Tánaiste and Taoiseach, would often have been upset by letters coming in just before key decisions were to be made. I really want to know the position because we must not have kite-flying. We have to have certainty. Can the Tánaiste guarantee here today that the plans for the leaving certificate examinations and, most important, the plans for the reopening of schools, which were mentioned again on radio by the Minister for Education this morning and by the Taoiseach on Limerick radio, will be implemented because the Government has consulted NPHET and the CMO, Mr. Tony Holohan, and that they will not be torpedoed?
I thank the Deputy. Parents and students asked for clarity, choice and some compassion, and that is what we have provided in making the decision yesterday. A decision from the Government gives students the choice to opt for either a calculated grade or an accredited grade, or to sit the traditional examinations, which include written, oral, aural and practical examinations. They can make their choice subject by subject and they can also choose both options, taking whichever grade is highest.
On school reopening, NPHET has been consulted. It has given us informal advice on what school reopening could look like. It has advised that we should adopt a very gradual approach and that we should not have all 1 million pupils going back on the same day. The advice is that reopening should be done on a gradual basis, perhaps starting with leaving certificate students, because they need to prepare for their examinations, and also the youngest pupils, who are considered to present the lowest risk. These include pupils in junior and senior infants and first class, for example. After reopening, the situation would be assessed for a few weeks to determine whether there is an increase in cases of transmission, for example, and further reopening for more groups and years would occur only thereafter. That is the plan. That is the approach that NPHET has advised us is most appropriate. This will be discussed again this evening by the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid.
The Deputy asked me the very fair question as to whether we can give a guarantee and certainty. If we have learned anything from the pandemic in the past year, it is that nobody can give a guarantee or offer absolute certainty. We are seeing case numbers coming going down but they are still quite high. There are still 500, 600 or 700 per day. Schools were fully open at those levels back in September and October but we now have the B117 variant, which is much more transmissible. We just cannot say for sure what impact it will have as schools reopen on a phased basis throughout March and April. When schools reopened in September, we did not see a significant increase in cases. We know from other countries that they have managed to keep their schools open or bring pupils back but it would not be responsible for me to use the words "certainty" and "guarantee". That is why the advice from our scientists and public health doctors is not to bring back pupils all at the same time but to do so gradually, with some years going back first, followed by an assessment after two or three weeks. It is only then that the green light would be given for more classes or years to go back.
I have two points. Will the Tánaiste take on board the request of the Labour Party for both sets of students to have oral and practical examinations? That would assuage many concerns, particularly those of unions. It is a request. The Tánaiste might come back to me on that.
I realise there is no certainty with Covid. I really do not have an issue with the Tánaiste saying he cannot offer a guarantee. I was not trying to put words in his mouth but the issue for me is that there is genuine concern. Why kite-fly 1 March? Why not have the meeting of the subcommittee tonight? Why not come back next week or later this week and say what the Government is doing? The Cabinet subcommittee on Covid, with Dr. Holohan and NPHET, is meeting tonight. After that, the Government should make the decisions. Why have a Taoiseach and Minister on radio, a Minister on the television and two live-streamed parliamentary party meetings all making reference to preparing for 1 March? Everyone is hanging on everyone's words. When will the Tánaiste tell us when the Government will make a decision that everyone, including parents and students, can plan for rather than saying the date will be 1 March? I respect the fact the Tánaiste cannot give certainty but I do not respect the timeline.
I thank the Deputy. We will certainly take on board the suggestion and request from the Labour Party on a hybrid option but I understand there are some difficulties with it. One reason we want to have the calculated grade or accredited grade system is in case, for some reason, schools close again and oral, aural and practical examinations cannot go ahead. I am not saying they will close again. Having two systems, with the examinations and accredited grades, at least allows us to know that if things go wrong, there will still be accredited grades. If oral, aural and practical examinations are worked into those accredited grades, there may be a problem with accredited grades in the event of schools having to close again. That is the thinking behind it. Maybe it is possible to have three parallel systems of assessing students. We will take that up with the Department of Education and the Minister.
On dates, I have never used the date 1 March. I appreciate that others may have. What I have said is what I have said here.
I have referred here in the Dáil to the plan. The plan for quite some time has been for the phased reopening of schools, starting with the opening of special schools, which has been done, and moving on to special classes. Across the period of March and April, the plan is to open schools on a phased basis. I totally appreciate that what parents want is a clear plan and clear message. We will have that in the next few days.
I want to take up a question that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Connolly, raised yesterday, namely, the question of the destruction of the files from the commission on mother and baby homes. I am sure the Tánaiste and everybody else in the House is aware of this because everybody will have received emails about it from the survivors and their representatives. I am making a plea to the Tánaiste, in his capacity as a representative of the Government, to find a way to do something to extend the lifetime of the commission beyond 28 February. He will be receiving emails asking him to do this. The reason is that the survivors and their representatives believe - much of legal advice is to this effect - that if the commission closes down on 28 February, there will be no prospect that it will be able to go after the files containing the 550 oral testimonies that we are told have been destroyed.
I note that since yesterday's challenge by Deputy Connolly, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, says he will make further inquiries as to whether the files have been absolutely destroyed or can be retrieved in some way or another. It is hugely important that he said that, but if it cannot be done or he cannot guarantee it will be done before 28 February, there is one thing the Government could do, namely, to bring an amendment to the 2020 Act we passed before Christmas, section 7 of which would allow the Government to extend the lifetime of the commission beyond 28 February. There is no other way it can be done.
Prior to the introduction of the Act, the commission was extended five or six times just because the Government was asked to do so. It did so on behalf of the commission looking for more time. The survivors are now asking for it and I am pleading with the Tánaiste to do his best to get this done. I have no doubt that not a single Deputy or party in this House will stand in the way of it happening. As was eloquently put by Deputy Connolly yesterday, we have let them down throughout the history of this State, we have let them down with the commission report and we have let them down massively by destroying their oral records without their permission. Can we please do this one thing for them and extend the lifetime of the commission to allow investigation into what happened to those precious records?
Over Christmas, I found an old tape of a conversation between me and my ma 20 years ago, and I immediately got it digitised for her anniversary, which was just after Christmas. Those recordings are precious to those who know the people and to us as a society because of what went on in the mother and baby homes and the disparity between what was recorded and what was transcribed. Many witnesses, like Noelle Brown, have said the transcript does not represent their testimony. We need to get those recordings back. If we cannot do it before 28 February, will the Government please amend the Act?
I thank the Deputy. We will certainly try to do the right thing by the survivors, taking into account all the issues at play. I think the commission did a good job. It did what it was asked to do, in many ways. It spent five years examining all the documentary evidence, spoke to lots of people who spent time or worked in mother and baby institutions and did its best to come up with a report to a legal standard as to what could and could not be proven and what was and was not said.
I do not want anything I say to be seen in any way as a criticism of the people who did the report because they did a good job within the confines of the Commissions of Investigation Act, but I think there are some big flaws. One big flaw is the fact that when the commission reports, it reports. It is almost left then to the Government to explain the report, even though it was not the Government's report. I watched the documentary recently on the institutional abuse that occurred in industrial schools that was on TV. People may have seen it. One of the differences that time was that Mr. Justice Séan Ryan and the people who did that report were able to go out, explain it and answer questions. That has fallen to the Government on this occasion, even though it is not our report. That is a flaw.
A second flaw is that many survivors did not get the opportunity to tell their story in public the way they wanted to. Many survivors want to remain private and that is their choice, but there are others who, I believe, would have liked to have had a public forum where their story could be heard and recorded as a truth-telling exercise. Unfortunately, that is not how it was set up. Maybe it is still possible to do that. The former Minister, Katherine Zappone, and I had started work on that in the period of the previous Government.
On the call for the timeframe to be extended, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is aware of the concerns about the audio recordings made by the confidential committee as an aid to its work. The module was created to facilitate people to provide accounts of their deeply personal experiences in complete confidence and as informally as possible in the circumstances with a view to providing a report of a general nature. The Minister is liaising closely with the commission of investigation and the Data Protection Commissioner, DPC, to ensure these matters can be appropriately addressed by the commission. He is committed to having robust processes in place for the management of the archive when it transfers prior to the end of this month. He is open to exploring all avenues that would best serve the interests of survivors. However, at this point it is his view that the additional time would not assist in any way.
I will not comment on what I think of the report of the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes, whether it is good or bad or what the problems with it are. That is not what I am here today to try to do. I am here to best represent the interests of the survivors who have been pleading with all of us. I doubt there is a Deputy in the House or a Senator in the other House who has not received tons of emails asking us to do our best to ensure the allegedly destroyed files are not destroyed. It is not all about publicly telling one's story. It is also about having the historic record and having the story told correctly and accurately. People like Noelle Brown who gave testimony say their testimony, as they spoke it, is not reflected in the final report. I will not say anything about judging that or not judging it, other than it is not right. The more harm we do to these survivors, the more we do not listen to them and the more we pile hurt, pain and disrespect upon them, then the more disrespect we will gain from it. As a Parliament, we need to address this. I ask the Tánaiste again, if it is the case that these files cannot be retrieved or definite information of their retrievability cannot be given before the end of this month, will the Government bring forward an amendment to the 2020 Act that will allow all of us in this House support it to save the files for investigation?
I cannot make that commitment here but I will take up the matter again with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. I do not know if it is possible to retrieve the audio recordings. Knowing the answer to that would be crucial at this point. The commission has said that each witness at the confidential committee was given a guarantee of complete anonymity, and for this reason the tapes were deleted. Recordings, the commission says, were used as an aid to create thematic records of each person's account, from which the final content was produced and published in the confidential committee report. The commission has repeatedly said that this process and the associated actions were carried out with the knowledge of survivors, although it is clear that many survivors do not share this view. I respect that and the Minister has been examining these matters closely. He has engaged with the commission itself as well as the Data Protection Commission, DPC, and the Attorney General on the matter. The possibility of an extension raises legal questions and has implications for the operation of future commissions. If the commission were to be extended while the archive was transferred to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, it is difficult to see how the DPC could carry out a proper investigation. To leave the archive with the commission would mean that it remains the data controller and would respond to subject access requests, bearing in mind that it has always refused to give these up until now. It would be responsible for the exercise of the right to rectification.
I return to the issue of antigen testing, which I have raised several times with the Tánaiste. The European Commission has advocated the use of antigen testing. The Irish Government said "No" and that it was not good enough to take up the 20 million antigen tests offered by the European Commission. It was not good enough to facilitate visits to nursing homes. It was not good enough to facilitate the return to schools or to make schools safer. Lo and behold, we woke up on Monday morning to find out that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is facilitating the antigen testing of workers in meat plants. Such workers operate under bonded labour, effectively, because the Tánaiste's Department will not change the work permit system.
I do not disagree with the decision to facilitate antigen testing in meat plants by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but, if it is good enough for this sector, why is it not good enough for others? My question is not about the decision. I do not disagree with the decision. How are decisions made by the Government? It is strange that it could not be looked at for every other sector, but when Larry and the lads rock up, it is, "Yes, sir; no, sir; three bags full, sir." On what possible basis is the Government making decisions around antigen testing, particularly given that the EU Health Security Committee has agreed today common standards across the EU, common data to be shared and common data to be included in results? If every other country in the EU thinks it is safe to use antigen testing, not as an alternative to PCR testing or for a clinical diagnosis but to get society back functioning, what is the obstacle in Ireland?
The second thing I will raise is a follow-on from a previous question, which I believe I can do, and it is in regard to banks.
Bank of Ireland has announced it is going to close 83 branches. We know what those branches will be because three of them are in my own county. They are the branches that were closed and reopened in a limited capacity following the previous lockdown. The State still has a 14% shareholding in Bank of Ireland. We bailed out Bank of Ireland, and now it is bailing out on us. It will result in elderly people, in particular, receiving a reduced service and businesses receiving similar. At the same time that is happening, various Departments hold their accounts with Bank of Ireland. As I said, there is a 14% State shareholding in Bank of Ireland.
Okay. I am sure the Tánaiste can respond if he wishes, given that his Department specifically deals with the banks daily. He is well acquainted with the issue of antigen testing should he choose to reply.
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I support the greater use of antigen testing in Ireland. I am on the record as having said that on a number of occasions. However, that has to be subject to public health advice and the approval of NPHET and HIQA, which also advises on this.
It is now being used in outbreaks and has been tested in some clinical scenarios, such as outbreaks in hospitals. It has, therefore, been used in recent weeks under direction of NPHET and the HSE. The problem is that it misses a large number of positive cases, particularly asymptomatic cases. Therefore, whereas a PCR test might miss 15% or 20% of positives, an antigen test will miss many more positives, especially asymptomatic cases. That could give a false reassurance. People can believe they have tested negative for Covid-19 and can behave in a certain way that actually causes the virus to spread. That is one of the big concerns about using antigen testing more so than we do now. It can create a false reassurance that people have tested negative when they actually have not. There is a very high risk that positives get missed on antigen testing.
For what it is worth, the first I heard about meat plants was from the media. It may well be that the meat plant owners have taken it upon themselves to do this. People around the country are carrying out antigen tests and even PCR tests without approval or guidance from the public authorities. There are private labs, for example, from which a person can get self-tests and so on. People can order others from the Internet. I do not know for sure but it may well be the case, and I suspect it probably is, that the meat plants took it upon themselves to use antigen testing and that was not done with the approval or authority of any public body. I could be wrong on that but I suspect that is the case.
To clarify once again, NPHET has endorsed the recommendations on the use of antigen testing. As I mentioned previously, the HSE is now putting in place deployment options for the use in acute hospital settings and as part of a response to outbreaks in community settings. The use will be in symptomatic vulnerable populations and their close contacts, supported by appropriate clinical governance and operational arrangements.
The Minister for Health has set up a group that is chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Professor Mark Ferguson, to examine the use of rapid tests in the community. Therefore, things are moving, albeit at a slow pace, in regard to greater use of antigen testing. It will now be used in symptomatic vulnerable populations and their close contacts. The group, under Professor Ferguson, will see if it can be used more widely in a community setting.
The Deputy also mentioned Bank of Ireland. It is the case that the Government holds a 15% shareholding in Bank of Ireland. However, 85% of it is owned by other investors. The decision to close any branches is obviously one for the bank. It is not a decision for Government nor one that requires Government approval. While nobody likes to see a bank branch being closed, we all need to acknowledge that the world has moved on in terms of banking. The number of people who set foot in a bank branch now is a fraction of what it was ten or 20 years ago. We need to think about how we can use these iconic buildings, which are often in villages and main streets, for a new purpose that will involve footfall.
This false positive and reassurance is a bit like the argument against giving out condoms during the HIV pandemic, that people would feel reassured and behave on that basis. Frankly, I do not buy it. Every single person who is detected is somebody who would not otherwise be detected. It is not that we are taking people away from PCR testing to antigen testing; it is in addition to it. It is a screening process. Therefore, I simply do not accept that argument. I can see that Deputy Kelly, who I know has also been vocal on antigen testing, agrees with me on this particular point.
With regard to the banks, the shareholding is one thing but Departments have huge bank accounts. There was once a time when the Tánaiste said not another red cent. How about not lodging another red cent in bank accounts owned by Departments if this is what they are doing? There is a generation for whom this will not matter. Equally, there is a generation of people for whom it will matter hugely. Businesses across main streets in Miltown Malbay, Kilkee and Tulla will be adversely affected.
Nobody likes to see a bank branch close in a town. We need to be honest and realistic, however. The world has moved on. The number of people who go into a bank branch now is a fraction of what it was ten or 20 years ago, and the number will keep falling. Most purchases in Ireland now are happening electronically. Even places where a person could not use a card before and where they only took cash, they sometimes now only take a card. Older people, by and large, have adopted and adapted to that change in technology, much more so than many people give them credit for. That is the truth of the way in which the world is moved on.
I represent a constituency with 120,000 or 130,000 people. There are two, perhaps three, banks in the entire constituency. It is not that people travel to other parts of Dublin or other parts of Meath or Louth to use those branches. People are managing money in a totally different way and-----
For clarity, because it puts the Leas-Cheann Comhairle in a difficult position, it is one question, one issue. The Tánaiste has chosen to answer the second issue, so the antigen test question has not been answered, and we will just leave it like that. I am moving on now to Questions on Promised Legislation.