Wednesday, 3 March 2021
An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business
Le linn na géarchéime, tá sé aontaithe go nglacfaimid le tuarascáil an Choiste Gnó mar a léitear é. Ag éirí as sin, tá dhá mholadh ag teacht os ár gcomhair. Ar dtús, an bhfuil clár oibre an lae inniu aontaithe? Is Wednesday's business agreed to?
We need time to be provided for the Taoiseach to give a full explanation to the Dáil as to why big bonuses can now be paid again to bankers at AIB, a bank that was bailed out by the taxpayer to the tune of €32 billion. Fianna Fáil had been out of Government for ten years but it has only taken it ten months in office to resume the payment of outrageous bonuses to elite staff in this bank. This is an unacceptable situation and a kick in the teeth to every person in receipt of the PUP who will face a tax bill, to student nurses and midwives-----
In fact, it is a kick in the teeth to every family and worker who struggles in these extraordinary times. The leader of Fianna Fáil and the current Taoiseach needs to explain in full his Government's decision-----
On behalf of the Rural Independent Group, I ask the Taoiseach to provide time to discuss what is going on in banking, including the complete abandonment of rural Ireland and many areas of urban Ireland, not to mention what went on with Davy stockbrokers. There is simply no appetite in this or the previous Government to for legislation around banking to address what banks are doing and the way they are treating the people.
I agree with the proposal from Deputy McDonald. We need to have a debate about this. One of the issues that is particularly concerning is that it is reported in the Irish Examinerthat the Minister for Finance did not bring any memorandum to Cabinet on Tuesday about his decision but merely slipped it in during an oral briefing on various banking issues. If one looks at the situation in banking right now, one sees the massive closure of bank branches and the threat that poses to rural communities and jobs, one sees what has been exposed at Davy's and now, on top of that, one sees that we are back to the bad old days of big bankers' bonuses.
We do need a debate on these issues which are coming up more and more. We have seen the situation with Ulster Bank and Bank of Ireland. Bonuses are also being paid to auctioneers and we must deal with the issue. I support the proposal that has been made.
I agree with the points made. Extra time must be provided to allow some discussion of the behaviour of a number of leading lights in the area of banking and financial institutions. In particular, I am thinking of what has been unearthed in Davy. It is one thing to impose a fine of €4 million but what we really need to see is the people concerned in this kind of criminal activity being brought to book. It is important that we hear the implications for them and I hope those implications will be severe.
Before we started the Chief Whip told me that we have full agreement from the Business Committee and that there are no issues with the Order of Business. That did not last 60 seconds but what intrigues me is that on the schedule for this evening, at 5.54 p.m., is statements and questions and answers by the Minister for Finance on the banking sector, with 135 minutes provided for the debate. What are the Deputies on about? It is provided for on the schedule but the Deputies all get up and say, "Shock, horror, we need a debate on banking. There is none provided for." It is provided for and has been agreed. The Deputies agreed it and the Chief Whip agreed it on behalf of the Government. We all agreed that there would be statements on banking this evening. There will be a debate and the Minister for Finance is coming in.
What is really going on here is Deputies playing politics with workers. Deputy McDonald spoke about a slap in the face to this worker and that person on the PUP. The Government has to deal with the substance of the issues at hand. There are three Irish companies involved here, with a whole range of employees. There is Fexco, for example, in south Kerry, which employs a substantial number of people. The Government had that in mind. It had the protection of work in that company in mind, in terms of making decisions of this kind. These issues are not simple. Banking is going through a significant change, as can be seen from the NatWest situation, the Bank of Ireland decision and a range of other matters. Banking is not what it was in the past. It is going through huge change and challenges. We want to protect as many jobs as we possibly can and to ensure the viability of the wider banking sector. We also need a vibrant stockbroking sector in Ireland-----
-----to help to ensure that indigenous Irish SMEs and corporates can access capital markets to fund their future growth plans which will underpin Ireland's economic recovery as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. The decision is good news for Fexco, which is an important employer in the south west. It can use the proceeds it receives to continue to grow and innovate in financial services and maintain employment in the region. It has been a leading employer there for quite some time.
The standard remuneration arrangements in stockbroking business are not similar to retail and commercial banking and never have been. That is a fact. The Minister for Finance has ring fenced the staff in Goodbody from the rest of the AIB group and will ensure ongoing compliance with Government policy on bank remuneration. There has not been a change to Government policy on bank remuneration. There has been no change in relation to that. The Minister for Finance will be in the Chamber this evening to debate this at greater length and to take questions from Deputies on it. AIB is acquiring a business with a variable pay structure. The bank will continue to observe strictly the Government's remuneration restrictions. Controls and measures are in place under the deal to provide complete transparency in this regard. Under the terms of the acquisition-----
Thank you, Taoiseach. Can we take it, Taoiseach, that the debate that is already scheduled, to which we have all agreed, can in fact deal with the issues that the Members have raised, as Deputy Duncan Smith has suggested?
That is not what I asked for. I asked for a full statement of explanation from the Taoiseach to the Dáil as to why there has been a change in policy and why these bonuses will resume in an institution that the taxpayers of this country bailed out to the tune of €32 billion. What I hear from the Taoiseach now is an assertion that in fact bonuses will not be paid. He needs to be careful not to mislead or to place inaccuracies on the record of the Dáil. People deserve an explanation from the head of Government as to why and how such a dramatic, unwelcome and unacceptable change to policy has been made. That needs to come by way of a statement from the Taoiseach.
That is just unacceptable play acting. The Minister for Finance is a very authoritative Cabinet figure in the context of finance and banking. He has responsibility for policy in that area and it makes absolute sense and logic that he would present on this issue in the House this evening.
The Deputy is just playing politics. This had been agreed at the Business Committee and it is the same carry on week after week, with sloganeering, branding politics and trying to place people in particular pigeonholes to suit the political narrative of Sinn Féin. It is not good politics because it is playing politics with people who have jobs in these institutions. I am talking about people in Fexco and AIB. The Deputy can play politics with them as much as she likes, but the Government has to deal with the substance of the issues.
We are here to organise the business of the day. Deputy McDonald has called on the Taoiseach to make a statement, but it is up to him whether he does that. We have, however, scheduled a debate for 135 minutes on banking. Deputy Duncan Smith very reasonably suggested that the issues raised by Deputy McDonald could be raised in that debate and proposed that be done. Is the proposal for today's business agreed? Agreed.
The second proposal concerns Thursday's business. Is the proposal for that business agreed? Agreed. I thank everyone very much.
We now move to Questions on Promised Legislation. I advise Members there are 35 names on the list in front of me. I call Deputy McDonald.
On several occasions, I have raised with the Taoiseach the need to give priority to the vaccination of family carers. I am disappointed they are still being ignored by the Taoiseach's Government. I said before that family carers are not looking to gazump anybody else, but they believe they deserve a level of priority and special mention beyond the general population. Their big concern is that they provide care for vulnerable people in their family homes. If the carers fall sick, then who will pick up those responsibilities? That is the issue.
I appeal to the Taoiseach to do the right thing, to be reasonable and fair, to hear the voices of family carers and to give them visibility and their place in the vaccination programme. The Taoiseach told me before that he would seek advice and guidance on this matter. I do not know if he has received that advice and guidance, but I ask him, as the Head of Government, to do the right thing by family carers.
I again take issue with the language being used by Deputy McDonald. To suggest that a deserving group like family carers is being ignored is again playing politics with the vaccination programme. The national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, has consistently advised the Government regarding the prioritisation of groups that should be vaccinated. It is based on those who are the most vulnerable and at the greatest risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the disease.
NIAC will continue to advise the Government regarding the prioritisation of those cohorts. The most recent significant advice came last week concerning those with underlying health conditions. Those people were moved up the list in accordance with the clinical advice, and again based on the principles of prioritising those people who are the most vulnerable to disease and death. NIAC continues to look at other cohorts in this regard. I think it is wrong, however, for the Deputy to state that the Government is deliberately ignoring a certain group. We certainly are not.
I raise the issue of the fine of €4.1 million imposed by the Central Bank of Ireland on Davy stockbrokers. While it is welcome because of the reprehensible behaviour of the executives involved, there is also a real issue of perception versus reality. I am sure the Taoiseach agrees. I refer to there being one law for the rich and one for the poor.
The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, commented on this issue this morning. I did not think he was very good. I thought he was quite weak. Why have we been waiting for two years and been dragging our feet on introducing a regime of accountability for bankers and senior executives in financial firms? It has been recommended by the Central Bank of Ireland and has been introduced in the UK. Simply put, unless it is brought in, it is highly likely that executives who act in this way in future will be able to hide behind fines imposed on their firms. That is not acceptable because it will not negate such executives taking such risks and chances again.
The behaviour, as revealed, is unacceptable. The regulator has acted has acted in a very firm and decisive way. A severe penalty of more than €4 million has been imposed. The regulator's decision is significant and it will have an impact on behaviour. It is deeply disappointing that such behaviour happened in the first instance.
We will work with the Deputy on any additional measures he thinks may be necessary. We will work with him and others in order to see what more can be done to this disincentivise such behaviour in future.
I heard the comments of the Minister for Finance this morning and I thought they were strong. His response to this is important in terms of identifying the role of the regulator. There has been a tendency in this country to set up independent regulation, but then we do not allow the regulators to do their work.
There are reports in the media this morning that a High Court challenge has been lodged on the constitutionality of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA. Will the Government defend that case? Has the Government examined the requirements of a referendum and the constitutionality of the ratification of CETA?
My view is very consistent. CETA is absolutely in the interests of the workers of and enterprise in this country. It is also in the interests of a country which exports the vast majority of the goods and services it produces. We are an open, exporting country that depends on multilateralism and open and free trade.
The legal advice I have received on this and the clarification by the European Court of Justice states that the claims made against CETA regarding the investor courts are not sustainable. The European Court of Justice finding has brought us clear clarification on this issue concerning the superiority of Irish public policy or the public policy of the government of any member state trumping anything in the context of the mechanisms in the CETA deal. I understand that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs will now be dealing with this issue and Deputies and Senators will have an opportunity to address this issue in that context.
On Saturday, we saw a violent anti-lockdown protest on the streets of Dublin. This protest had the far right at its core, exploiting the widespread frustration people feel about lockdown and the failure of the Government to give people hope in its strategy to eliminate the virus. The far right tried to tap into people's real anxieties and fears. In reality, those groups want to see an end to democratic rights, the smashing of trade unions and brutal oppression of women, LGBTQ people, migrants, Travellers and others.
What was the response of the establishment in this State? The Garda Commissioner incredibly and falsely claimed that both the far right and far left were involved, which was a gift to the misinformation campaigns of the far right. When he was forced to retract that claim, he still wrongly maintained that there had been initial indications that the far left had been involved. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, stated that it was important not to get caught up in who was involved. Does the Government agree that it is important to call out the responsibility of the far right and that the Garda Commissioner made a major mistake in confusing matters?
I thank the gardaí on the work they did. They faced much provocation, some of which was premeditated, from what I saw. There were many agitators about the place. I refer to those who are anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown. I do not buy the argument that those driving the anti-lockdown protest were doing so just because they were fed up. Clearly, co-ordinated positions were adopted, perhaps not by everybody but by significant numbers. The aggression and hostility directed toward the gardaí was unacceptable.
The gathering of such groups in the first instance is unacceptable because it can spread the disease. The spreading of the disease risks causing severe illness among many people, including our senior citizens, and this can also lead to deaths. That is why mass gatherings are unacceptable. I think the Commissioner clarified his remarks. A range of conspiracy and far right groups seem to have been involved. Their behaviour was unacceptable and I again pay tribute to the gardaí.
Under Project Ireland 2040, €550 million has been allocated up to 2022 for urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, applications. Newcastle is an area in Galway city with more than 6,000 residents and no community facilities. Under the chairmanship of Seamus Davey, the Newcastle Combined Community Association has submitted an application for funding towards the community centre and community facilities. The community has invested more than €200,000 in this project, which is shovel ready and crucially important. The project has the unanimous backing of all Galway West Oireachtas Members and Galway City Council. Will the Taoiseach contact his colleague the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, to ensure this project can come to fruition and offer his support for this facility, which is much needed in this part of our city?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of the funding application from the Newcastle Combined Community Association, given the enormous community it serves and the level of investment that has been put into the facility. I will engage with the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, on the points the Deputy raised in the context of the URDF. A number of frameworks support communities and this should be looked at in the context of one of them.
The bank bailout has to date cost taxpayers €60 billion including interest. The Government has dissolved the bank levy, of which the banks have paid only €1.2 billion. What is happening with Bank of Ireland? Three branches in County Tipperary, in Cahir, Cashel and Templemore, are closing. All over the country, banks are exiting rural Ireland. EBS are leaving Tipperary town and we have seen what is happening with Ulster Bank. When is the Government going to get real? We have a 14% share in Bank of Ireland. Exercise that.
I too heard the Minister this morning, with his feeble words and little tickling, as it were, of what is going on in Davy and elsewhere. The Government is not supporting taxpayers; it is supporting the banks and is in bed with them. It is allowing these closures and the abandonment of rural Ireland to go on week in, week out, and multiple further closures will be coming because the banks get away with it and are not touched by the Government. Why has the Government abolished the banking levy?
The announcement yesterday by Bank of Ireland to close 103 branches throughout the country is a devastating blow to communities that are reeling after many years of cuts by this Government and previous governments to post offices and Garda stations, and this is another damning blow. It is going to suck the life out of the centre of these rural villages. We as taxpayers pump in €4.7 billion to Bank of Ireland. We are major shareholders, at 14%, yet in my constituency of Wicklow, the branches in Tinahely, Carnew and Rathdrum are going to close. As a major shareholder, what is the Government going to do to stand up and protect rural communities, which it has abandoned up to this point?
On behalf of the people of Kerry, I raise the way in which Bank of Ireland has treated the people of Castleisland, Killorglin and Tralee, where there is a branch at the institute of technology. These are hard-working customers, people who have been the cornerstone of the banks in those areas, and now they are being abandoned. It is wrong and unfair. The Government should be hauling the banks before it and saying they cannot treat their customers in this way. The next thing will be AIB and all the other banks - we have seen what is happening with Ulster Bank - pulling out and leaving their customers high and dry.
The decision of Bank of Ireland to close 103 of its branches, two of them in Bantry and Dunmanway in my constituency, is a grave error of judgment by the bank. The price that will be paid for this is a weakening of customer loyalty to the bank, and a loss of knowledge to the bank of its individual customers' needs and the unique needs of the communities it serves. Over many years, the Bank of Ireland branches in Bantry and Dunmanway have gained an insightful and valuable profile of these loyal customers. and this healthy symbiotic relationship has thrived to the benefit of both.
Will the Taoiseach step in and force a change of mindset? The Government is the main shareholder in these banks and can intervene if it wants to. It intervened recently in regard to mortgage relief for people.
This issue has been raised in respect of Tipperary. Cahir, Cashel and Templemore are three of the places that will lose out. Templemore will now have no bank and we got word this morning that EBS is pulling out of Tipperary town. The programme for Government makes a big thing out of the rebuilding of rural Ireland. Since the Government took power, it has been destroying rural Ireland. It is time the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, intervened here so that local and small businesses will have someone who supports them. EBS pulling out of Tipperary town means that customers of that bank will have to go to Mitchelstown, Nenagh or Clonmel. Where does it stop? We ask that the Taoiseach and the Minister intervene in the closure of these banks.
In County Limerick, seven branches are closing, in Abbeyfeale, Askeaton and Rathkeale in west Limerick, Bruff in east Limerick and three in the city. That leaves five branches in Limerick city and county. It is about time the Government stood up and said enough is enough. We bailed out the banks and now it is time to leave the services there. Three branches in west Limerick, one in east Limerick and three in the city are gone, which leaves five.
In my constituency of Meath West, there are three Bank of Ireland closures, in Athboy, Castlepollard and Enfield. A person can drive from Kells to Mullingar, which is 30 miles, through Athboy, Clonmellon, Delvin, Castlepollard and all the way to Mullingar, before finding a bank. It is very difficult to get businesses set up in these towns if there is not even a bank. Enfield, another town, has grown massively in population, with hundreds of houses approved for it. There are 3,000 or 4,000 people there already and Bank of Ireland is moving out. I ask the Government to intervene to save some of these branches.
I speak on behalf of the people of Dunmanway and Bantry, two towns in my constituency that learned the news on Monday that their Bank of Ireland branches would close. There are two important aspects to this. The first is that there is an elderly population in the towns who rely heavily on attending their local branches to do their banking, and the news that they may have to commute to neighbouring towns such as Clonakilty or Skibbereen is simply not good enough. Second, the two towns rely on footfall and on people coming to their towns to do their banking, with the expenditure that brings with it. They are two important issues we cannot overlook. As a 14% shareholder, we need some intervention from the Government.
I want to ask what the Government is going to do in the constituency of Kildare South. The branches in Monasterevin and Kilcullen are closing and my concern is the elderly there. They cannot commute and do not have the means to do so. They have little hope of getting any banking done following the bank closures.
I thank all the Deputies for raising this issue. I understand and accept the impact these bank closures have on the various towns throughout the country and the implications for the towns concerned, for businesses in the towns and for people in general in doing their banking. The 14% shareholding does not give the Government any role in the running of the banks and that has been the position for quite a long time. The Government does not run the banks, nor is it minded to do so. That said, we are committed to rural Ireland and to looking at alternative ways to support those towns through different Government mechanisms and agencies. We are also committed to seeing what we can do to support the An Post network, not just in the context of its deal with Bank of Ireland but, more broadly speaking, to maintain as much of its network as possible across rural Ireland, and to taking other initiatives for investment in such towns under a range of headings.
We are committed not just to regional development but to rural development in terms of Government funding of a range of initiatives, some of which have been announced already and more of which will be announced in the coming weeks.
On the vaccination programme that is being rolled out throughout the country, which is very welcome and has been welcomed in all communities, there is a cohort of people who cannot leave their houses to attend GP clinics to get vaccinated and who are not being dealt with at the moment. I understand the vaccination programme people are looking at that, but a response is needed because I am inundated with calls about it, and I am sure every other Member in the House is as well. It needs to be dealt with and can be dealt with with a bit of imaginative thinking. It would put those people's minds at rest.
I have the same issue about vaccine centres. Three such centres were announced for Cork city, one in the city centre and two on the southside. Once again the northside of Cork city is being abandoned and forgotten about. There is no vaccination centre in one half of Cork city. It is not fair. There was also the closure of SouthDoc. There needs to be fairness when it comes to providing health services to the people of the northside. I am asking the Taoiseach, as a Cork Taoiseach, if he will get on to the HSE to ask it to provide a vaccination centre on the northside to ensure the people in both parts of the city are treated equally.
The regional college is in the west of the city. I do not mean to be facetious. There is good capacity in the city for vaccination. That is important.
Deputy Pringle made a very important point, which I want to acknowledge, about the need to ensure we can provide for people in their homes who cannot leave their homes because of conditions or illness. Measures are being organised through GPs to do that. I take the Deputy's point on that.
On Deputy Gould's point, the large majority of vaccinations will take place through GP surgeries and, ultimately, pharmacies. The vaccination centres are for where certain GPs have to get together because their surgeries would not be suitable, and they are for the mass vaccination that will take place in April, May and June. We must see it all as part of one framework for the administration of vaccines.
I must point out that, today, we have only got to the end of the list of the group leaders without getting to any of the Deputies who had indicated. I suppose that today was because of the banking issue, but my apologies to all of those Deputies who were on the list. Their names will be carried forward and they will be given priority tomorrow.