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Credit Unions

Enterprise, Trade And Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 3rd November 2009.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 3:15 pm, 3rd November 2009

5. asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to outline the time frame for the introduction of the legislative framework for credit unions.      (AQO 307/10)

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

The Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment’s report on its inquiry into the role and potential of credit unions in Northern Ireland was published in February 2009. HM Treasury published its independent review’s report on the legislative framework for credit unions and industrial and provident societies in July 2009. I responded positively to the findings of both reports.

The reports include recommendations about credit unions in Northern Ireland that will require new legislation to be enacted in Northern Ireland and Great Britain to bring them into effect. Discussions to determine the most appropriate legislative options are under way with HM Treasury, but final decisions have not been made. When those decisions are made, a timetable setting out indicative timings for the implementation of the necessary legislation will be drawn up. If possible, the timetable will be included in a joint consultation document on credit union reform by the Treasury and DETI, which will be issued in Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Our best assessment is that the consultation document will be issued at the end of the year or early next year.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she recognise the important role that the credit union movement has played? Does she agree that the new legislation will present an opportunity for credit unions to expand their roles and move into different areas such as social housing?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

I have always recognised the value of the credit union movement. Credit unions are vital, especially in such difficult times. Many people have turned to credit unions because they think that they are the safest place to deposit money. Credit unions are part of the community and part of who we are. I welcome the role of the credit union movement in Northern Ireland.

Before the proposals were published, the credit union movement told me that it wanted to extend its services to local communities. Therefore, the change in legislation will be a huge opportunity for credit unions that want to extend their services. The credit union movement mentioned child trust funds. Credit unions cannot currently provide that service, but, when they are regulated by the Financial Services Authority, they will be able to do much more. However, being able to offer more services will mean that credit unions will be further regulated, and many of them have realised the impact that that will have. Regulation will not be an issue for larger credit unions because they will be ready for it. My concern is that some smaller credit unions may find regulation a little burdensome, and we must be alert to that as we move forward.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I pay tribute to the Minister’s Department for the excellent support that it provides to credit unions and the working relationship that it has with them.

Given current debt levels and the number of people who have got into financial difficulties with licensed and unlicensed loan sharks, expensive credit cards and other forms of borrowing, does the Minister have any plans to help the credit union movement to reach out to wider groups of people, particularly those who are socially disadvantaged and are, perhaps, not aware of the credit union movement and the enormous benefits that it can bring?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

My Department will continue to support the credit union movement, because we believe that is a force for good in Northern Ireland. I know that credit unions have great plans to be more proactive when they become regulated by the FSA. That will enable the bigger credit unions in particular to become more proactive. I under­stand that some have great plans for moving forward into their communities, and I welcome that very much. However, increased regulation is the price of being allowed to do that, and some of the smaller credit unions have expressed concern about that. The Department is alert to that concern, and I will have to take it on board when I look at the legislation.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

Given that credit unions and the Presbyterian Mutual Society are run on a similar basis and given the seriousness of the situation with the Presbyterian Mutual Society and the concern about that in the community, can the Minister provide an update on the current position of that body?

Photo of Arlene Foster Arlene Foster DUP

That is still a huge issue in society, and we are reminded continually of the hardship that members of the Presbyterian Mutual Society face. On 14 October 2009, the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Minister of Finance and Personnel and I met the ministerial working group, which is chaired by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to review progress on finding a solution to help members of the Presbyterian Mutual Society. Initial discussions have begun at official levels with some local banks. It was agreed that those talks should progress and that officials should, as a matter of urgency, continue discussions with local financial institutions to identify a satisfactory outcome for PMS members. When we know the outcome of those discussions, we plan to present a paper to the ministerial working group that outlines the full range of options that are open to resolve the PMS problem.

The administrator of the PMS is engaged fully with the process. He has advised PMS members that it is in their best interests to await the outcome of the Govern­ment assessment and the assistance that they can provide. I agree with him about that. I assure the House that I remain personally committed to doing all that I can to bring forward proposals to deal with the difficulties that PMS members are experiencing. The ministerial working group hopes to meet again soon to review the current situation.